A solitary Black female figure appears from the waist up amid a blaze of fire and an archway of cotton left on the vine to bloom into luscious yellow flowers. Unperturbed by the roaring flames or the gaze of her onlookers, the figure looks out of the frame as she lifts a handful of popcorn to her neon purple lips, her pink and green striped dress a provocative yet subtle nod to the color of watermelon. Born and based in New Orleans, printmaker Katrina Andry depicts herself in this work, The Fire Making Way for Autonomy. In this scene and the others in the solo exhibition Afro-what-if-ism: Reimagining One Night in 1811 at Ibis Contemporary Gallery, Andry reconsiders antebellum narratives of the past, temporally remixing present and potential future scenes of liberation and leisure.
As many readers may already know, the largest slave revolt in U.S. history began outside of New Orleans in 1811. Enslaved individuals on the Andry Plantation organized and initiated the uprising, during which freedom fighters burned plantations and sugar houses on a two-day, twenty-mile march to New Orleans. Militants met the liberatory crowd with violent brutality, executing and mutilating dozens of those resisting enslavement and thwarting their arrival to the city. Despite the alleged “failure” of the revolt, the uprising lives loudly in the memory of social justice advocates and liberation seekers in New Orleans and throughout the South. Reflecting on how this history endures through lived, embodied, and ongoing fights for racial justice, I recall a quotation from Black studies scholar Saidiya Hartman, who writes: “[A] way of thinking about the afterlife of slavery in regard to how we inhabit historical time is the sense of temporal entanglement, where the past, the present, and the future are not discrete and cut off from one another…that we live the simultaneity of that entanglement.” Andry, like Hartman, rejects the limitations of linear time or of a concluded past and instead depicts a reality of “temporal entanglement.” For the artist, revolts against forces of enslavement, celebrations in a joyful future, and complexities of the lived present are all experienced in simultaneity.
In another work on view in the show, Andry’s father stands at a barbeque grill set amid an expanse of blooming “confederate” jasmine. In the distance, fires from past plantations or present oil refineries burn and smoke, connecting capitalist atrocities against racialized bodies with ongoing environmental devastation. The father figure makes his own small fire that serves to sustain and nourish his family. In another scene, a blonde white woman in a red MAGA hat reclines in a camp chair, her stony face numb against the fire consuming neoclassical columns around her. Climbing up the columns, disembodied Black hands with red nail polish appear — evidence of the forced labor that built the literal and financial architecture of the United States. From atop the columns, these hands fan the flames with shiny green palms. Another print features two figures resting on lush green grass and blowing bubbles, a plantation succumbing to an inferno in the background. On either side of the mansion rise the trunks of deeply-rooted, live oak trees, their branches reaching high and transforming into hands. Ten or so bubbles, collage components of the print, visually read as watery, cosmic bodies — their own liquid worlds of joy and play perhaps capable of dousing the fire if only they wanted to.
With these and the other works in the show, Andry pushes the medium of printmaking to the point of multimedia. The prints themselves are realized in a complex process of layering linocut, monotype, and color reduction woodcut. To make her woodblock prints, Andry carves into thin slabs of wood with hand tools and then applies ink modified with magnesium, cobalt dryer, and a myriad of other substances onto the newly textured surface. In addition to this alchemy of traditional materials, Andry adds her own secret sauce of Dawn dish soap, jet dry, and mouthwash to various sections of her monotype surfaces. At times she uses a wooden spoon to print smaller sections of print blocks. These materials and techniques are applied to deep black, cotton-rag archival paper, and Andry uses a dehumidifier in her studio to stabilize and limit this paper’s absorption of water. From the departure point of printmaking, Andry adds oil pastel, shiny foil, conte, graphite, mylar, and matchsticks to her work. Viewing this tactility and layered materiality in person, one struggles to identify where one medium ends and another begins. In this way, Andry’s work reads like a collage of both material and process, registering at various moments as sculptural, painterly, draftsman-like, or architectural, in addition to the work’s encompassing form as printmaking.
As I exit the gallery after viewing Afro-what-if-ism, the outside air smells of smoke from nearby wildfires, a haunting irregularity in a swampy environment more accustomed to emergencies of water than fire. With climate disaster no longer a nightmare of the future, perhaps the fire will make way for autonomy amid ashes of plantations.