What would our society look like if all colors and bodies of people were represented in curriculum, art, media, history, and all facets of culture? If kids grew up in an inclusive world with a black or female president with mainstream black artists that were painters and sculptors and not just rappers, where their first thought when considering any possibility is, “I can do this,” what could they accomplish? Artist Alexis Pye stirs up these questions in her interview in support of her pieces on display at the happening exhibit Everything’s Gonna Be Alright Now organized by Robert Hodge at the David Shelton Gallery. Through the research, the study of color and evocation of emotion on canvas, Alexis works through the African American diaspora, but who is she?
She eats, sleeps, and breathes art. Working four jobs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, (MFAH), Contemporary Arts Museum, and the Blaffer Art Museum, she could act as a one woman show if the need arises. She says, “It probably won’t be as neat as I want it to be, but I can definitely be okay.” Outside of being extremely hardworking, Alexis occupies a unique perspective for a current Houston artist. She grew up in the East side of Detroit, Michigan, 7 mile to be specific. Her mentality embodies the two worlds. Four years ago, she moved to Houston with her family where she attended its namesake university and recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. During her coursework she was a Summer Studios 2018 artist and shares some of her experience with us below:
Summer Studios 2018:
“It’s a really good opportunity for a really young artist that is coming out of university. Basically you get a row house to do whatever you want with within reason. I did a research/audio memoir of Houston’s music. So, I covered the very beginnings up until the present – not even the present. I would say swangin’ culture and chopped n’ slopped; things like that. So, up until DJ Screw, mix tape culture, and stuff like that.
I’d say the highlight was the interviews. My only regret is that I wish I was able to basically quit one of my jobs so I could really immerse myself into it. Because I felt like I was basically trying to do that project and then work at the same time, which is great ‘cause that’s what a lot of artists have to do. They have to make a living and like do their art, but I almost felt like I was doing a disservice to a lot of the stories because I wasn’t able to immerse myself into them like I really wanted to. But it turned out pretty cool for like a first time. So, I would love to revisit it.”
Continuing the conversation on the culture of music by discussing Nipsey Hustle:
“Well personally, I want to be honest. I never really listened to his music. I heard about the $100.00 mixtape that he did and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool.’ But I never really listened to it. But I can understand what he occupied in Hip Hop. I do understand that; what he occupied in Hip Hop and what he did for Crenshaw and stuff like that. And just like empowering people to basically do it on your own. You don’t have to wait for someone to save you. You don’t have to wait for your neighborhood to be gentrified. You can kind of do something yourself. And I really respected that out of him – like really respected that. That’s like one of the, I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but that’s the thing that we, like people of color, need to get used to it. Even though certain industries haven’t made a way for us, we have to push our way into it. You can’t wait for the man to save you. You have to save yourself.”
How the art industry measures up in making space for all people of all backgrounds and colors:
“I definitely do think it still has like a long way to go like me and Corey (Corey Sherrard, Alexis’s partner) was talking about it on our way over from the talk that we just recently went to was for this prospect New Orleans and it’s such an underrepresented community and city. It is like this juxtaposed feeling of like, ‘Yea you’re gonna bring all this money to this city, but what happens when you leave?’
And I’ve kinda like learned that art is not that thing where it’s going to give money, but it’s more of a tourist thing.
And I’ve kinda like learned that art is not that thing where it’s going to give money, but it’s more of a tourist thing. And I hate to say that because I’m a part of it too. Sometimes art doesn’t feel like that’s their job because you have institutions, and I don’t want to criticize the MFAH, but I’m going to do it, you have institutions like the MFAH and they are right down the street from a lot of black neighborhoods. Do they ever try to go out to those neighborhoods and do programming? And get those communities into the museum? Or even make them feel like they’re included into their museum? Probably not. And do they advertise things that are for their communities? Like I’m a part of the city wide show (Citywide African American Artists Exhibition at the MFAH, where she won the 2019 Citywide Exhibition Juror’s Choice Award) and it took me to apply for a job to learn about the show. I didn’t even see it nowhere at the MFAH. I didn’t see it nowhere on MFAH’s website. Like one of the curators was curating the show. It’s like, it’s a show for African Americans that’s partnered with the MFAH, why isn’t it advertised on the museum wide website? Things like that. It’s just like this disconnect. Like, we’re going to help you, but we’re not going to advertise it. We’re not going to do the things that you need to do to get the word out. It kinda saddens me sometimes. It’s that, but a lot of other things.”
Who is making space for these artists? And what inspired her work there?:
“I’m at a group show with David Shelton with other artists that are young and prevalent. It was curated by Robert Hodge. It’s a really cool show…These are like African American artists too…I would say sometimes it’s just really one-off ideas or feelings. I will have like an image in my head and it will just pop up out of nowhere and I kinda just work on it, sketch it out, paint it maybe several times and then maybe I’ll go get a model for it. I try to work from life but also like this imaginary place too. So, like one of the portraits that’s in the David Shelton Gallery was like this symbolism painting mixed with one of my friends. Her name is Bre. And just like imagining this really powerful figure in this symbolism room full of paintings made by African Americans.”
More about Bre and its silhouettes in the wallpaper:
“Yea, so that’s inspired by something different. That’s one of my other loves. I love Vienna, German interior design. I really think that it’s a thing that sings; all these textile places before like, basically, the Holocaust that thrived. So, like the Walkners. They were a family back in probably the 20s, 30s and going into the 40s. They were a pretty prominent family and I think even Klimt (Gustav Klimt, an Austrian symbolist painter) did some work for them – the artist that did the Golden Woman. They did these really cool textiles and sometimes there were like silhouettes and just like really weird [things] and it had a revival in the 70s too with like psychedelic art. It’s like these really weird concepts of like floating ladies or symbolizing death or love in these portrait forms or patterns.”
“I would say it’s all about womanhood in that painting. So, maybe that’s what kind of drew me to that specific wallpaper (The wallpaper is from Wiener Werkstatte) that I found. So, yea womanhood and the African American diaspora and like how it’s a very mixed diaspora especially the African American diaspora. Like we can always say that we’re African but then we’re ultimately American too and what is being American? It’s like this mixture of just like so many things! You know, German, Mexican, English. It’s like all these things that we’re reflected upon and that’s kind of what I wanted to do in that portrait.”
Continuing with Louis:
“That painting is based off of a painting that was in Tudors to Windsors (Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol, October 7, 2018 – January 27, 2019) show that was in the MFAH. It’s one of Louis’s mistresses and the painting was kind of like to gloat how like rich she was. It’s this little slave girl that’s holding this coral and shell full of pearls and it’s just like her looking up to her like, ‘Oh, what shall I do with these objects of like really richness?’ Literally that really was just like a study of color and stuff like, but I’ve really always been interested in these renaissance paintings and color filling them in and only detailing the riches. So, like the coral, the shell and like the clothing.”
More about the study of color and Three Feet:
“I’ve always loved baby blue. It’s always been one of my favorite colors. I’m still trying to find a lot of definitions in that painting. I knew that I wanted to do a painting about my sisters and sisterhood. The actual picture is inspired off this Carrie Mae Weems picture that’s called May Flowers and I definitely felt like light blue. And that’s another concept too, not even a concept, it’s like I come up with paintings, because sometimes feelings just come up as colors. I know Pharrell Williams said this one thing, ‘I see in colors.’ And maybe I don’t see in colors, but I do definitely feel in colors. Like I do definitely gravitate to colors because of the types of things I’m going through.”
“I would say I’m definitely going through a whole green vibe. So, I guess summer for me would be green right now almost like a turquoise like green. My house is kind of covered in it right now. And I would say fall for me is like, and that’s the thing, fall with you guys (Houstonians) kind of threw me off. Fall in Michigan is really like cold, like freezing cold and it comes really early. And I would say it was like this really warm blue almost and now it’s just like yellow almost – like this mustard yellow here. It’s really nice weather out here; t-shirt weather like almost every day here in the fall. It’s like perfect weather. So, I’d say like yellow. In the summer it’s just like red hot. I hate the summers here.”
On Brandon Thompson’s African American Readings also on display in Everything’s Gonna Be Alright Now:
“I think it’s a really clever piece. I really think it depicts a big pressure amongst African Americans especially African American men, which is that they have to answer to everything. Like, the famous line, ‘Who has the answer, Sway? Do you got the answer? You ain’t got the answers, Sway!’ Kayne West was having sort of a point there even though he blew completely off. (Referencing the 2013 interview between Sway and Kanye West on “Rapfix Live.”) He has a point. Who has all these answers? And like we’re all deeply flawed but when it comes to the African American community it’s just like, ‘Oh okay, you guys have all been reformed. You guys had all these things happen for you. You had all these good things happen for you,’ and it’s just like there’s still institutionalized racism out there. In things like when I go outside and people are really weirded out by my hair still. You know, it’s still things, small things out there that that make it real big, you know that make it hard for certain things. And nobody has the answers to that. And that’s another thing. You can be the most educated black person in the world, but you can still get racially profiled. There’s no way of changing your skin. No way. There’s no way of waking up one day, and like not even money can buy that. That’s the crazy thing about that. Even getting a nice car or and maybe I sound bitter, but nothing will change that. You will always be that center of danger for some people. I’m not even going to say ‘some people,’ a lot of people.
That’s the one that nobody has the answer to. How do we separate that identity? You can’t really because the whole history of America has been, ‘These people are dangerous. These people are violent. These people are this. These people are that.’ And when you can’t even break out of that window, like where do the other answers come from? How do you answer these really big problems when you can’t even answer that simple problem?
That’s the one that nobody has the answer to. How do we separate that identity? You can’t really because the whole history of America has been, ‘These people are dangerous. These people are violent. These people are this. These people are that.’ And when you can’t even break out of that window, like where do the other answers come from? How do you answer these really big problems when you can’t even answer that simple problem? And I think that’s where that painting says a lot to me. You can always read a book, you can always see where the answer is, but it might not be quite the potion for that one question. “
Continuing with the questions as it relates to accountability and the criminal justice system:
“You gotta hold yourself accountable to the injustices that are happening right now… And it’s just like, I don’t know. I’m very on and off [about] the videos. We are getting videos of cops doing injustice or even just people in power doing injustices to people. I guess it’s needed because it’s stone cold evidence. It’s stone cold, like, this is happening. This is what happens to these people and you can’t ignore it no more and all your announcements and you playing basketball with black kids is not going to fix this. You’re going to have to change. I saw someone post something like, ‘The police is a structure that’s kinda like inspired off of slave culture,” and I lowkey kinda believe that. Because like what did you have out in the fields and stuff like that? You had people who checked people when they’re not doing the right thing. And then when slavery ended this like resurgence of militant things to protect what is called civilized culture popped up. And then that turned into police. So, it’s just like, it’s an establishment that really needs to be retrained and just like, pay attention to, ‘Why do you want to become a cop?’ If you are trying to become a cop to make yourself feel bigger, then it’s probably not the job for you.”
“I would say that the ideal criminal justice is like what they really say you know, innocent until proven guilty. I think sometimes people are painted in such a way already when they go into the court that of course they are going to fricking go to jail. You get what I’m saying? There’s no innocent until proven guilty. It’s literally like you’re kinda painted into a certain way… I feel like even though that people are being videotaped and you’re seeing that cops are doing really bad things, nobody is saying that we need to hold these people accountable. We’re just putting them on leave. It’s not healthy. I swear, when we all get older as brown people, we’re probably going to move out of America and it’s gonna be a very weird place. And that’s probably the very militant person in me talking, but I want to get out of America. I lowkey am really scared because what’s the next step after killing? There’s nothing.”
On the African American identity, representation and conditioning:
“I really feel like other than the Harlem Renaissance the African American identity isn’t really archived or really recorded – especially in art and music. You know Hip Hop is like truly accredited to African Americans and like I would wonder how it would look in like 50 years from now, but how we look at African American art and how it gets lumped in with African art is like, ‘I don’t think so.’ I think African American is a whole identity of its own. I think, yes of course we do have that lineage to our African side, but at the same time 400 years of just like conditioning and washing away so much that you get lost. You’re lost. There’s this whole detachment to what you was before.’
“I think that’s why I kinda started doing art anyways. I remember one of the craziest comments that my mom made to me when I was younger was, ‘Why don’t you paint black people?’ It kinda changed my whole way of thinking about painting and just drawing in general. Like and I was in the fifth grade when that happened and I remember thinking long and hard, ‘Why don’t I draw black people?’ And I was like I’m around black people a lot. Well, and it was like my family. It wasn’t really my friends and stuff like that because I went to predominantly white schools and stuff like that when I was younger. It was a really eye opening thing. It’s like what do I see and what identities look at us outside of the African American diaspora.”
“I saw the Davinci Code and I remember being so in love with Leonardo Davinci. I did a whole presentation on it at school and I remember that people were like, ‘Man, she knows so much about Leonardo Davinci,’ and it was weird because at the same time I watched PBS and this famous art talk, Art 21 with Michael Ray Charles and it was the first representation of just like, ‘Dang! You can do that and be black?!’ You know? I just didn’t have that. But I was still researching European artists even after seeing that. It’s almost like trying to figure out why are you so attracted to Eurocentric paintings than paintings that are done by people that are like you. People are really trying to tell your story but you’re still gravitating towards the European art. And that’s kinda my artwork – trying to mend these things that I like and try to figure out why I’m so attached to these things.”
People are really trying to tell your story but you’re still gravitating towards the European art. And that’s kinda my artwork – trying to mend these things that I like and try to figure out why I’m so attached to these things.
“I really think it’s conditioning. Like I am really trying to break the habit. I’m like lowkey changed as a person as I research way more black artists now and I really try to like make myself very knowledgeable on African American art because I noticed that that’s a conditioning. Ever since you are little, when you learn about art you learn of Van Gogh and how he cut off his ear, and Leonardo, and the ninja turtles basically. You learn about the giants of art, but you do not hear – you do not even hear about Andy Warhol. You don’t even learn about contemporary art. But that’s all! You don’t really learn about the prevalent [black artists] like Jack Whitten. He did a lot of art in the 60s and a lot of people took away from him and stuff like that too. Those are big giants in the art world but when you’re in elementary school they push these certain artists towards you. And the teachers probably don’t know what they are doing, but that’s lowkey conditioning. If it was all American and how they want to say it is, we would be representing everybody. But it’s not and it’s kind of conditioning and I think that’s why I don’t hate myself for liking what I like, but I do recognize where it comes from.”
Sway doesn’t have the answer, but what about Alexis?
“I would make sure that that Art 21 by Michael Ray Charles is like shown to every 6 year old child. Because I’m like, ‘You can do it too!’ You can have a whole family. You can all live off of this. I would make sure that Jack Whitten’s work and how prolific it is I would definitely mention him. Then, like Cara Walker’s work and how it fights the institution even though institutions who are predominantly white show her work and don’t get it. It’s a good juxtaposition of this white institution showing this black woman and you’re kind of like exploiting her as a black woman and she makes these drawings/silhouettes of people exploiting black people… And we always think children are not as smart as they think. They can hold so much information. They talk about really crazy things at young ages and I think we should entertain that. I think that the sky should be the limit with kids and I think if we did that service to them, we would be a little bit better here. Because I think once you start telling them about crazy thoughts they start to see how things like discrimination, how stupid that is. When you tell a kid something really complex they will understand it, but when you are boxing them in, they will start boxing other things in. And I think that’s a really important aspect that you should teach children.”
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to save the world, but I think really do think that we should…I don’t know I talk to my little sisters like they’re little adults, and I don’t know, I probably shouldn’t talk to them the way I talk to them but I feel like they need to know that information or they’re going to be taught a really stupid way of thinking about things… Complex things are extremely simple, but we don’t want to say that. We want to make everything complicated. We want to paint everything light blue. We want to cover everything in a very pretty way, but when you tell things in a very ugly way then things become pretty. Things become extremely gorgeous. It becomes real. It becomes, “Oh this is really silly that we’ve been living this way for the past 300 years! We should change it!” You know? People will like start to think of things very simple if we just explain it how everything is, but that’s why we’re in the silly stuff that we are in today.”
It gave me people. I was extremely… I’m still sometimes extremely lonely but it gave me something that didn’t make me feel so weird and very out there.
“I am definitely obligated [to continue creating art] because it lowkey gave me something that I never thought I would have and it’s lowkey confidence lowkey like I don’t know. It gave me people. I was extremely… I’m still sometimes extremely lonely but it gave me something that didn’t make me feel so weird and very out there. I even noticed as a kid that I just thought things very differently and I just moved in a certain way and nobody got me, but as soon as I got to art it just latched onto me like almost like a drug. It was the one thing that I could go out into the world and start a conversation about. It was the one thing that people wanted to hear what I had to say about. It was like the very first thing that I hate to say that people to took notice of me about, but it was like, ‘Oh, Alexis can like draw! We should pay her. We should give her our lunch money.’ I got in trouble for doing that as a kid”.
What Alexis wants you to know about her as an artist:
“I would say that I’m a researcher. I try to really research the things that I put in my artwork. I’m a researcher. I’m not in it for the ego. I’m really into it to learn. That’s the cool thing about art. All of the people I know are like freaking scholars and they’re forever learning. I’m a researcher first and a painter.”
In a way, through mending her African American identity with her love of Eurocentric art, she’s telling herself and the world, “Everything’s gonna be alright now.” Maybe though, that’s too optimistic. Maybe, it’s “Everything could be alright.” If there was ever the question of the importance of representation and the value of inclusivity in curriculum and culture, this provides a clear answer. How many children with her talent don’t push through those muddy waters and ask themselves, “Why don’t I paint black people?” How much talent is the world missing out on? Optimistically, through her persistence and talent, she is adding to the portrait that says, “You can do this too.”