Purple Art

[September 1 2020]

Purple PRESENTS: An interview with artist Sissòn

Words by Kate Caruso
All images courtesy of Stephanie Bridger
Artwork by Sissòn

Sissòn is self-taught and ever evolving, consistently teaching themself new ways of making. When we first met, Sissòn was working on bold, abstract paintings with reference to art masters Picasso, De Kooning and Brancusi who were themselves referencing African masks and artifacts. Sissòn has since peeled back this mediator, and now makes figurative works referencing Black Life directly, both historically and in present day. Sissòn has worked across mediums; learning to paint, cultivating cotton plants for a site-specific installation, working with ceramics and seeking tutelage from the Gee’s Bend quilters (something I hope to see more of in their practice). An ever-evolving artist, their work continues to grow and build on itself, perpetuating a feeling of legacy. Sissòn and I spoke over the phone during quarantine to discuss these matters and others.

Talk us through a typical day in studio for you?

Every day varies, but I keep to my routine of stretching, and a cold shower. Music is vital in my studio. The genre depends on what I am working on and the tempo I’m attempting to access creatively. Usually tends to be classical, hip-hop or jazz. I am hugely influenced by music; so much so I named my studio Hitsville, U.S.A, after Motown Records. S/O Berry Gordy. Motown was a symbol of hope for my community. It was Black owned, Black ran and represented Black artistry. Rings true to what I am doing here. Once the atmosphere is right, in my laboratory I paint.

Could you describe the studio?

I am very object driven so my studio is filled with many things — African Artifacts I’ve acquired over the years, or ceramics I’ve made. I am surrounded by them. These pieces continue to come up through my work and trigger stories that emerge. It’s key for me to connect to the space psychically. The space is very lived in -meaning loads of spirits and presence. On a daily basis I cleanse and then activate the space by burning sage, Palo Santo. I have incense burning round the clock. The studio is a mess and I am only one that cleans. It really grounds me, and connects me to the objects and space. 

Where do you begin with making a work?

I’m always doing research and gems just come up. I usually have an idea conceptually of what I want to achieve with the final result then follow that thread. Painting wise sometimes I just spend hours staring into the blank until the image reveals itself, then it’s improv and freestyle until the joints  “complete”. 

I’m interested in hearing about the growth of your practice, specifically what moved you from abstract to figurative?

After I moved to New York in 2016, I really felt this Black Renaissance. I started focusing more on accessible Black stories, reading about Hallie Salassie, and other incredible Afro thinkers. I felt it was time to reimagine the Black form. There have been representation of European forms since the inception of museums and throughout all the documented art movements until now there’s been very little Black inclusion figuratively. So I approached it in that light and began to metabolize the feeling that these new Black figures would have to posses in order to have an existing life.

What sort of reference material are you thinking about?

The Black life.

Which artists inspire you?

Miles Davis, BIRD, Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, Frank Ocean, Lil Baby, Lama Rod Owens, Kendrick Lamar, Kerry James Marshall, Arthur Jafa, David Hammons, my partner and a few contemporaries most of which are friends.

Can you tell us a bit about your recent exhibition COTTON (Phase I)?

This exhibition was exploring the changing shape of slavery’s influence through a plant, presenting 12 acrylic paintings on cotton canvas, a tapestry, a quilt from my residency in Mississippi under mentorship of the Gee’s Bend masters, and an installation in the center of the room containing live and devastated cotton plants cultivated on my studio roof.

Beginning in 2018 with a bag of Gossypium, (Cotton) seeds delivered by mail from my uncle, a dialogue sparked between me and my partner. Those conversations were the catalyst to COTTON. Cotton plants were tended to by enslaved millions who built America’s superpower economy and shaped its cultural, systemic and social landscapes.

We decided to grow a cotton plant, which led to ten plants, and eventually led to 600 plants to labor and tend to. The plant provided an entry point, through which I was able to develop and explore a direct relationship with my personal and collective heritage. Over a year and a half, I grew more than 600 cotton plants on the roof of our home and studio in Los Angeles. The remainder of the recently devastated crop were presented as ephemeral sculptures. The cotton plants were arranged among cinderblocks and plastic curtains, pertaining to the PHASE I sensibility; the installation evokes a work in progress, an experimental first try at agriculture as part of my art practice – this which will be further explored in Phase II. The paintings also allude to this theme of agriculture through figurative scenery of African-American life on a plantation.

And about putting it together?

To mount a show at this scale independently is no doubt strenuous. But we’re a small rag tag gang and we pulled it together. Hoping to get the band together for Phase II in 2021 or 22 depending on how the pandemic plays out.

I’d like to talk about your choices of material, noting that you were originally working on paper bags, then linen, and now thinking about cotton and your installations. Can you speak on that?

The material selection was solely based on the project. It didn’t make sense for me to have a show titled Cotton and use linen or paper bags. I wanted to use as much physical cotton as possible. I told myself all the paintings had to be on cotton canvas, which is a material that I was never drawn to in the past. We spent over a year growing the sculptures for the installation #2. Which was the centerpiece. This was the second installation piece I’ve ever showed publicly. The materials for this installation came from a vision that my partner and I both had separately. Then realized it was important to bring those downloads to physical form.

 I dived into history of quilt making. Quilt making in African American culture isn’t really talked about, so I wanted to explore that and my own relationship to it. After further research, I learned of Harriet Powers, one of the first fine art Quilters, who used Quilts to share historical and life events. 

 During this time, a woman appeared to me at the foot of my bed. The bottom half of her body was a quilt. This affirmed my growing interest and through further research I learned of Gee’s Bend and the acclaimed female quilters out in Alabama. 

 I sought them out and cold-called for tutelage. Then I traveled to Mississippi where I was trained to quilt under China Pettway and Marie-Ann Pettway.

You work independently (and not with a gallery), can you speak on that choice and your experience as an independent artist?

The decision to work independent was Initially out of necessity. I did not follow the traditional pipeline – MFA at an Ivy League or other prestigious schooling, and then get recruited. I am self-taught, Black and grew up poor in a single parent household. So if I wanted a career I had to carve out an existence for myself independently. No one was going to give me anything. I was always keenly aware of having to make my own path. “The art world has been built off the systems of white supremacist delusion” (Sonya Renee Taylor) and can be unnecessarily exclusive and pretentious by nature. I had to take the power into my own hands. I am very Hip Hop in everything I do, that’s the culture I was raised in. That mentality is embedded in me. I am not opposed to working with galleries or accepting representation it would just have to be a fit; the value proposition would have to make sense at this point. 

In your eyes, what constitutes a successful career?

Having the luxury to create what I want when I want. If I put it in that context, I am already a successful artist. The rest is just the icing on the cake. Hell … the ability to create the work i want as a Black non-binary person in America is an achievement all on its’ own. 

Success can’t always be monetary, because there is always a higher number. I don’t think I’ll ever be as successful as I want to be, because the landscape is always changing. What I think success is has changed, and will continue to change. I used to focus on currency, but now am far more interested in being satiated. Success is a moving target.

We’ve talked before about holding works back, not selling them. Could you explain your thought process for this?

I am very aware of placement. I don’t want to sell particular paintings just to sit in someone’s living room. I can be very sentimental. These things are like my kids to an extent. But at the end of the day they are a product. I have to separate myself sometimes. I let go of more than I keep. The most important thing is legacy. And you have to know which works are worthy of holding on to. 

Which works do you keep and how do you know to keep those?

It’s instinctual. Sometimes it’s the climate it is made in, or the energy I occupy while I made it. For Cotton, most of the strongest paintings were made in about 5 days because I was just activated. I sort of wish I had made more paintings during that time.

You have a work in a traveling museum exhibition. Could you tell us about the exhibition, and your work in particular?

It’s a group exhibition called Men Of Change, being exhibited through SITES (Smithsonian Institution) designed by WSDA (We Should Do It All). The exhibition, which profiles revolutionary African American men, will travel to 23 museums in the US over the next couple years.

I was commissioned to depict Bayard Rustin. He’s one of the most important civil rights activists. He organized the Montgomery bus Boycott, was a right hand man to Martin Luther King, etc. Because he was Gay, he was not written into history in the way he should have been. The painting is titled Findin Bayard aka Double or nothing. It’s my Guernica. The painting depicts racism, inequality, police brutality, fetishism of the Black male body, homosexual love, and America as a whole.  It’s the world he fought to change that sadly hasn’t changed much.

Before creating the painting I did a year of research. I got my hands on every book, every documentary. I even got in touch with his life partner, who I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with at Bayard’s apartment in New York. He gave me photographs, so I have all these photographs of Bayard on vacation, at key moments in the civil rights movement, etc.

What were your intentions for this work?

I knew that SITES wanted a traditional portrait of a man, and part of me wanted to give them that. However, with this being my first museum exhibition I really needed to say something. I hope I’ve done that with this piece.

What do you want people looking at your work to know?

I want people to know that it’s rooted in truth. I’m not depicting an imaginary world. I’m investigating the truth of the now, whether that depicts white supremacy, racial injustice, red tape, oppression, or violence in the Black community. These are all true issues. That is the role of the artist. I get frustrated with some of my peers whose paintings are removed from truth. As artists, we have an opportunity to say something. I am very deliberate in presentation, as every moment holds this opportunity. Be it my truth, or historically true, it is true experience. I am exploring the evident range of Blackness.

What visions do you have for the future?

Visions I have are of beauty and equality – a beautiful and more equal world, where people are aware. This generation has had the opportunity to restructure in a way that is more sustainable. White Supremacy is not only a delusion but also a disease that we are suffering from. The notion alone makes me think of a bar I once wrote…”How are you more superior when we bleed the same?”

In order to manifest change we all have to do our own work. I can’t tell another person the steps they must take because that’s me doing the work for them. Reading four books is not comprehensive. I’ve been doing this work my whole life because I’m a minority. White people doing the work, that’s what I’d like to see more of.

What advice do you have for other artists?

Escape comparison. Horses at the Derby wear blinders. Because if they cannot see the horses running next to them, they will just run. Looking at others, it’s derailing. In part it’s self-inflicted but it’s mostly societal. In the words of Nipsey, “it’s a marathon, not a race”. 

Words by Kate Caruso, All images courtesy of Stephanie Bridger, Artwork by Sissòn

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