‘Torkwase Dyson: Bird and Lava’

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum highlights recent work by New York-based artist beginning March 22

Contemporary artist Torkwase Dyson explores urgent issues relating to architecture, infrastructure and the social and political impacts of the climate crisis. Her approach to abstraction brings ideas of distance and scale into conversation with historical and contemporary reflections on the agency and brilliance of Black spatial liberation strategies.

Torkwase Dyson, “A Place Called Dark Black (Bird and Lava),” 2020. Acrylic and ink on canvas, 96 x 80″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Parsons Fund and Bixby Fund, 2021. (Image: Kemper Art Museum)

This spring, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis will present “Torkwase Dyson: Bird and Lava” in its James M. Kemper and video galleries. The exhibition will present an expansive view of the New York-based artist’s “Bird and Lava” series (2020–present). Anchored by a newly acquired work, “A Place Called Dark Black (Bird and Lava)” (2020), the display spans painting, drawing, sculpture and animation — along with architectural models relating to Dyson’s new commission for St. Louis’ citywide public art triennial Counterpublic.

Across this series of works, Dyson frequently employs a geometric compositional system of squares, trapezoids and curved lines — which she collectively refers to as “hypershapes” — derived from architectural spaces used and invented by individuals seeking to escape the built environment of slavery in the United States. For example, the square signifies the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 shipped himself in a wooden crate from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia. The trapezoid is culled from the experiences of Harriet Jacobs, who, as recounted in her autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861),” spent seven years hiding in an attic crawlspace. The curve recalls the hull of a ship, such as the one that carried Anthony Burns in his 1854 escape from Richmond to Boston.

Combining Black experiences of space with evocations of the natural world, Dyson builds her compositions through layers of washes and textures that accumulate alongside delicate diagrammatic marks alluding to both industry and questions of scale. These works suggests intermediate spaces, horizon lines, enclosures and ocean depths, and evoke themes of containment and expansion as well as ecosystems both past and present. The geography of the Atlantic Ocean and its relationship to the “Plantationocene” — a term first used by scholar Donna Haraway to highlight how the logic and structure of the plantation system continue to operate within global capitalism — is present throughout. Dyson’s abstractions gesture to waterways and infrastructures that have been sites of colonial trauma as well as spaces of survival and resilience.

Torkwase Dyson, “Force Multiplier 2 (Bird and Lava),” 2020. Mixed media on paper, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

A similar sense of liquidity characterizes Dyson’s stop-motion animations, four of which are on view in the museum’s video gallery. These short, improvisatory drawing sessions, captured with Dyson’s cellphone during the height of the pandemic, explore questions of material, process and touch, and reflect the artist’s urgent need to “feel liquid” and to “make space.”

Rounding out the exhibition will be renderings and maquettes relating to Dyson’s sonic architectural installation “Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin),” which will debut as part of Counterpublic in mid-April. Located in St. Louis Place Park, near the Griot Museum of Black History, Dyson’s semi-permeable wood-and-steel structure, like her “Bird and Lava” series overall, invites us to consider the sociopolitical potential of shape, surface and structure while envisioning new, livable worlds.

Torkwase Dyson, “Force Multiplier 5 (Bird and Lava),” 2020. Graphite, charcoal, acrylic, and pen on paper, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Visitor information

“Torkwase Dyson: Bird and Lava” will open in the Kemper Art Museum’s James M. Kemper Gallery and its video gallery March 22 and will remain on view through July 10. Museum curator Meredith Malone, who organized the exhibition, will present a free gallery talk at 2 p.m. June 10.

The Kemper Art Museum is located on Washington University’s Danforth Campus, near the intersection of Skinker and Lindell boulevards. Visitor parking is available in the Washington University’s east end garage, which can be entered from Forsyth Boulevard or Forest Park Parkway.

Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays. For more information, including current COVID-19 precautions, call 314-935-4523 or visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Torkwase Dyson, rendering of “Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin),” which will be installed in downtown St. Louis April 15 to July 15 as part of Counterpublic 2023. (Image: Counterpublic)

About the Kemper Art Museum

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, was established in 1881 with the founding of the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts at Washington University. The museum is committed to preserving and developing its art collection and continuing its legacy of collecting significant art of the time; providing excellence in art historical scholarship, education and exhibition; inspiring social and intellectual inquiry into the connections between art and contemporary life; and engaging audiences on campus, in the local community, across the nation and worldwide. The museum is free and open to all.

Support for “Torkwase Dyson: Bird and Lava” is provided by the William T. Kemper Foundation. For more information, visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.