Jac Lahav and Kumasi Barnett in Conversation
In his first solo exhibition at 42 Social Club (Lyme CT), Kumasi Barnett explores American culture, police violence, and stereotypes through the lens of comic books. Barnett’s immaculate paintings over vintage comic book covers masterfully transform well-known superhero tropes into brutal social commentary. Kumasi Barnett and 42 Social Club founder, Jac Lahav, share their reflections on Barnet’s new work.
You are a prolific artist. Tell me a bit about your background.
I was raised in Baltimore Maryland. In a small part just outside of the city called Turners station. This tiny community is right next to the water and the highway in the back of Dundalk. It is a small historic black community surrounded by a white community that served as housing for the now-defunct Bethlehem steel plant.
Growing up I always thought I would be an abstract artist. I trained as an abstract painter and that was my focus when I earned my MFA from the Ohio State University and my undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland. Part of the draw of abstraction is the ability to communicate ideas without language. This allows a certain detachment from the work.
I’ve never had a problem painting. It is one of the few things I can do without hesitation. I think most artists are prolific, but they don’t value their work in the same way others do. We as people tend to diminish what we do well. Writers block for example isn’t the inability to write. It’s believing that everything you write is trash.
How did you start painting on comic books?
In 2015 I was living and working in Bed-Stuy in New York City at the time Freddy Gray was murdered in the back of a Baltimore police van. The subsequent uprising and unrest that challenged the police narrative were no more than 10 minutes away from my father’s house. The comic paintings arose out of this time, I felt so removed from who I was and where I came from. I felt alienated from some of the things and people that I care most about. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t be a part of what was happening and what needed to happen. Going down to Baltimore at that time felt like some version of carpetbagging.
I was looking for a way to express this experience and I found that in an old box of comic books in my closet. Language and especially writing are difficult for me. I speak best through painting, but I couldn’t find a way to express it in my abstract work. So I took these precious pieces of nostalgia that reminded me of my early days collecting comic books in Baltimore and used them to tell my story. To tell the truth.
So this work started as a way to speak about what I cared about. I had no intention for other people to see them. It was just for me. It was a personal project meant to exist only in my life. But it turns out it is a shared cultural experience.
Can you elaborate on what transforming comic books can tell us about our culture?
Transforming comics reveals the truth behind the classic hero tales we invented in America. These stories that are unequal parts science fiction, fantasy, and stereotypes flourish because people identify with them. They recognize themselves within the settings, sympathize with the characters, and find relief in the power struggles of these fictional heroes. But these stories aren’t made to speak truth. They’re made to be simplistic and make money. There is art in them but they aren’t made to be art. They’re made to sell dolls, toys, movies, t-shirts, book bags, and hats. I’ve found that I can tell a true story with these same fictional books. I can take fantasy and inject history into it. I can make Art from these artifacts of pop culture.
How does your work relate to Black Cosplay?
You know I haven’t really thought about how my work existed next to black cosplay before. It’s an interesting question. Black cosplayers are so talented and beautiful. I love them. The way they inhabit characters. The way they enter that fictional world and pull out pieces to exist in our world. I try to go there with my work but it’s different to make an artwork that has a presence and to be the art.
And they catch so much animosity for being extraordinary. For being. They enter into a political sphere just by existing. It’s amazing to have to deal with racism, attacks, and animosity just by having a presence. It’s truly the black/ African American experience.
I would say my work comes out of our domain (reality) and then enters into the world of fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi to tell truths. To reveal real history. Black cosplayers take the world of fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi and bring it into our domain (reality). I create reality and historical documentation where fantasy was. They embody fantasy in the present. We’re two sides of this complicated multifaceted die.
What would you like people to take away from your work?
I would like people to take away the truths and the ideas in my work home with them. I would hope that they have an investment in these ideas. I would hope that the stories spur conversations, thoughts, research, self-reflection, and so on. I hope that the work can open people’s eyes. I hope that people can recognize themselves in the work. In the stories. I would hope that people recognize the nostalgia in the stories too. The culture in the original stories and in my transformations. It’s extremely personal for me and I hope that people can really see America and American history at work here. I hope they take enjoyment from the work too.
All photos courtesy of the artist and 42 Social Club
Kumasi Barnett is a Baltimore MD based artist. Influenced by the aesthetics and narratives of comic books, his work subverts and imbues the often timeless genre with a present-day social consciousness. Barnett frequently paints directly over old copies of comic books, changing their narratives into critiques of police brutality, racial profiling, and more broadly, systemic racism. His work has been shown widely in the United States and abroad including the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town South Africa and The Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, FL. He is represented by Lowell Ryan Projects LA.
Jac Lahav is a curator, writer, and artist. He founded the 42 Social Club in 2016, a project space hidden in the woods of Lyme Connecticut.
NOTE: All gallery proceeds from this show go to Public Art For Racial Justice Education (PARJE) an organization in Connecticut devoted to bringing communities together to achieve racial justice through art.