New Orleans

Torkwase Dyson, Way Over There Inside Me (Ocean as a Super Throughway #1–4), 2020, four panels, graphite, acrylic, charcoal, and ink on canvas, each 40 × 30". From the series “Black Compositional Thought: 15 Paintings for the Plantationocene,” 2020.

Torkwase Dyson, Way Over There Inside Me (Ocean as a Super Throughway #1–4), 2020, four panels, graphite, acrylic, charcoal, and ink on canvas, each 40 × 30". From the series “Black Compositional Thought: 15 Paintings for the Plantationocene,” 2020.

Torkwase Dyson

New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA)

Torkwase Dyson’s new series “Black Compositional Thought: 15 Paintings for the Plantationocene,” 2020, was organized into small groupings, with one standalone work, in her recent show of the same name. Within each piece, Dyson layered constellation-like white lines and minimalist black shapes over deep-black and blue washes. An abstract galaxy emerged from acrylic, charcoal, graphite, and ink.

In a particularly distinctive pair of works jointly titled Interstitial Being (Architecture and Flesh #13, 14) (all works 2020), deep-charcoal-colored washes with subtle blue undertones made up the backgrounds, while three large black forms slightly overlapped to create one collaged shape in the foregrounds. The shapes seemed to cover fine white lines that appeared briefly, like accents in Dyson’s vocabulary. Each individual shape was roughly triangular, but with rounded edges, resembling a boat’s sail. While one of the three forms on each canvas had a smooth finish, the remaining two were created from layers of thick black paint. The gallery lights, bouncing off the paintings, highlighted their rich textures and gave them a sheen evoking that of petroleum.

Dyson created this series specifically for the New Orleans Museum of Art, located within City Park, the site of a former plantation. Theorists have begun using the show’s titular term Plantationocene to emphasize that our era emerged from the exploitative logics of plantations and enslavement. Seen through this lens, several of Dyson’s compositional elements signify differently: In two other groupings of paintings connected by their blue hues, for example—Way Over There Inside Me (Ocean as a Super Throughway #1–4) and Way Over There Inside Me (Ocean as a Super Throughway #5–10)—the organic flow of the wash and its dark-blue tones evoked the spirits of oceans, rivers, lakes, rain. Drips that trickled down and around the sides of the canvases created small passageways that reminded me of New Orleans’s storied history with water: The Mississippi River once carried enslaved people to the city’s port, and the region’s destructive floods and heavy downpours continue to unequally impact the city’s Black population due to the government-driven practices of segregation and redlining.

These associations connect to the other part of the show’s title, “Black Compositional Thought,” which is Dyson’s own “working term” for a consideration of “how waterways, architecture, objects, and geographies are composed and inhabited by black bodies.” Throughout earlier series, Dyson built a language of shapes that are abstract but that also reference moments in history when enslaved people skillfully used built structures or invented new ones to reach liberation. Here, the ninety-degree angle, curve, and irregular triangle all reappeared, symbolizing the stories of Henry “Box” Brown, Anthony Burns, and Harriet Jacobs, who hid in a shipping crate, a ship’s hull, and the crawl space under a roof, respectively.

Dyson’s material choices also brought to mind the relationship between environmental justice and the legacy of plantations. When I caught the oily sheen of the black shapes in Interstitial Being (Architecture and Flesh #13, 14), I could not help but think of St. James Parish—the site of the Freetown settlement, founded in 1872 by formerly enslaved people—which is now a Black community crowded with chemical, oil, and manufacturing plants in a stretch of Louisiana neighborhoods known as Cancer Alley.

Although Dyson’s works might draw connections to these bitter histories, they do not evoke the grief that comes with them. Her calculated forms and pointed lines instead come across as severe. But the details of her works also convey an expansiveness, a sense of anticipated movement: Dyson’s melds of overwhelmingly precise delineations with fluid grounds, sometimes punctuated by arrow-like forms, seem to be encrypted guides to a way out of the boundless tumbling problems of the Plantationocene. Or maybe her work merely reminds us of the possibility that such a path might exist.