New York

View of “Rico Gatson and Baseera Khan,” 2019. From left: Rico Gatson, Panel Painting #41, 2019; Baseera Khan, My Family Seated, 2019; Rico Gatson, Panel Painting #42, 2019.

View of “Rico Gatson and Baseera Khan,” 2019. From left: Rico Gatson, Panel Painting #41, 2019; Baseera Khan, My Family Seated, 2019; Rico Gatson, Panel Painting #42, 2019.

Rico Gatson and Baseera Khan

Conceptualized in the aftermath of the sociopolitical upheavals of the late 1960s and released in November 1972, Free to Be . . . You and Me was an award-winning children’s record album and illustrated book that promoted a vision of self-determination minus the strictures of traditional gender norms. Organized by actress Marlo Thomas, the album featured songs and stories recorded by celebrities such as Alan Alda, Carol Channing, Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross. Drawing its title from that pioneering franchise, this two-person show, featuring Rico Gatson and Baseera Khan, subtly extended its progressive message of self-empowerment to include other social categories—namely, race and religion, which often serve as the basis for discrimination and hate in the United States—by paying homage to the many activist women of color at the front lines of the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.

Across his multifaceted practice, Gatson introduces difference into the canon of Western abstraction, aligning the refined geometries of constructivism with those of African textile designs, while infusing Bauhaus color theory with the red, black, and green of pan-Africanism. In CBP #1, 2019—the title is an acronym for Customs and Border Protection—he substitutes the familiar rainbow bars of the television test pattern with a darker, earthier spectrum. In the basement gallery, a selection from his ongoing works-on-paper series, “Icons,” 2007–, featured five African American women active in the struggle for civil rights and the Black Power movements: Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Aretha Franklin, Nikki Giovanni, and Afeni Shakur. In each work, a portrait excised from a vintage photograph is framed with radiating beams, meticulously done in color pencil, that fan out from behind the subject’s head like a halo or a force field. With the graphic clarity and power of political posters, these images triumphantly recast the activists as saints and superheroes. Such veneration was repeated in Throne III, 2016—as much a Minimalist sculpture as a regal high-backed chair, its surface emblazoned with vivid geometric ornamentation.

Gatson’s hard-edge geometries contrasted nicely with Khan’s “Seats,” 2019, a series of cushioned, biomorphic, wall-mounted sculptural forms that evolved out of her karaoke lounge–inspired installation at New York’s SculptureCenter in 2018. Each is upholstered with a kitschy mélange of materials: Patches of slick polyester and iridescent tacky pleather abut the soft patterned weave of prayer rugs, embellished with delicate dangly fringes and grommets, which echo the golden embroideries that have appeared in some of Khan’s other works. Together, these surfaces and textures conjure the look and feel of a middle-class, Muslim American household without directly representing it. Some of the forms were suggestively ambiguous, while others, featuring head-shaped holes, were more easily identifiable as hijabs. Khan deployed the motif of the veil more conceptually in a pair of works featuring black-and-white photographs of her relatives: My Family Seated and My Family Standing, both 2019. In each, a neat arch of punched-out circles obscures the snapshot’s legibility while revealing hints of a color photograph underneath. Though the subject of the hidden image remains uncertain, glimpses of soft, fleshy-brown tones peek through, merging the two layers and enacting a solidarity between their subjects through their shared skin color. The array of circles, a schematized interpretation of the seating chart of the House of Representatives, indicates Khan’s ostensible subjects: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, the dynamic and progressive congresswomen of color whose headshots, though overlaid with a band of brown pleather, appear more legibly in House 1, 2019, one of the largest “Seats.”

Khan’s indirect tribute deftly reinforced how these young women have completely shaken up the American political establishment by demanding and claiming their rightful seats at the table of power. And like their foremothers from the civil rights era, this current generation is not cowering before the threats of bullies. Unfazed by the growing racism, misogyny, and xenophobia sweeping the country, they continue to assert their inalienable right as citizens to define the contours and limits of their selves, their communities, their country, and their future, free of any and all prejudice.