Ever since she graduated from UCLA in 2006, University of Texas at Austin MFA grad Christina Coleman has been exploring themes surrounding portraiture, skin and hair. The Austin-based artist has shown her work at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, grayDUCK Gallery in Austin, and the John L. Warfield Center’s Isese Gallery and Visual Arts Center at UT Austin. Coleman recently installed Christina Coleman: A Spatial Continuum in Black at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, on view until April 7th. She spoke with Amethyst Beaver, Curatorial Assistant in Modern and Contemporary Art, about her experience growing up in Los Angeles, her love of David Hammons’ work, and her interest in hair.
Amethyst Beaver: To start, could you tell me a little bit about your personal history?
Christina Coleman: I have a younger brother and a sister and I am from L.A. originally. I was born there and I grew up in mid-city. It’s literally right in the center of L.A. proper, so it is twenty minutes to Hollywood, the beach, South Central, downtown. It was really cool growing up in LA. I really like that city, even still. It’s very diverse, even though it is a separated diverseness. There are signs throughout the city that say “Little Ethiopia,” “Little Armenia,” and “Thai town.” I lived in L.A. for most of my life, all the way through college. After graduating, I went to Pinggu, China, which is a small city about an hour and a half east of Beijing. I lived there for two years and then came back to the states and shortly after I moved to Austin, Texas where I now live.
AB: How did you start making art?
CC: I came into art making through my dad. He would take me and my brother and sister to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] every Friday to hear jazz.
A: They had a jazz concert every Friday at LACMA?
C: Yeah, they would invite bands to come and play there. We were little—elementary school or junior high—and we didn’t like jazz, so we would just run around outside and wander in the gift shop and stuff. We kind of looked at the art. But for the most part, we were wandering around looking at the people.
A: You were just being kids.
C: Yeah, and I think that growing up in that environment made it more comfortable for us to be in galleries in the first place. My dad started taking us to a gallery in old town Pasadena so we got used to looking at art. I can still remember some paintings from that time. For me museums and galleries were never associated with being boring or quiet. My dad would usually take us to opening receptions and there would always be a lot of people talking, drinking, and having a good time.
A: When did you start making art?
CC: On Saturdays, during my last year in junior high, my dad took us to these art classes at the Watts Towers Art Center. Cal Arts had this community arts partnership program (CAP) and basically grad students from Cal Arts would come to different inner cities in L.A. and teach art to high school and junior high kids. I took mostly animation classes. I really enjoyed them.
A: It is so neat that they would offer those classes.
C: Yeah and it was free! (Laughter) That’s really how I got started in art, my dad bringing me up around it. He had friends who were painters. His friend, Bernard Stanely Hoyes, is a well-known painter in LA. I just grew up in—
A: —An arts friendly environment?
C: Yeah! (Laughter) it wasn’t the type of environment where I was told, “you’re not going to do art” (Laughter) I also attended Fairfax High School, which had a visual arts magnet program, so I was making art there as well.
A: You went to UCLA’s visual arts program for undergrad. What was that like?
CC: The UCLA program treated the students as independent. It was a non-traditional art education. I really liked it. It was structured so that there was only a beginning and an advanced class. Most of the time the classes were really focused on your ideas. Most classes began with “you have X amount of assignments. What are your ideas? Lets talk about them, then you can carry them out.” Then we would just do critiques. Being at UCLA really opened up my mind about what art was.
A: What do you mean exactly?
CC: Before I went to UCLA, art was only one kind of thing for me. Art was Picasso or Rembrandt. And I really like Rembrandt. LOVE Rembrandt. Gosh that guy could paint. (Laughter) But art was only portraiture or landscape. I had these very traditional ideas of what art was. And I remember one time, thinking to myself, “if someone asked me why I painted this painting, I wouldn’t be able to tell them.” I would not be able to give some kind of explanation and that really bothered me on a subconscious level.
A: Were there any artists you were looking to at that time?
CC: At UCLA, some of the departments had their own small libraries—the sculpture department had a little library in their space and I remember looking through books and that was when I first came across a David Hammons’ work. I saw his piece, his public sculpture, Higher Goals, and that blew my mind! (Laughter) I thought, “oh my gosh, wait, art can be political and social, it can relate to other things.” (Laughter)
A: When you graduated from UCLA, were you thinking that you wanted to go to grad school in studio art? Did you take some time off?
CC: I took two years off. When I finished undergrad, I knew that I wanted to go to grad school, but also I knew that I wasn’t ready to go. A professor hinted that to me. (Laughter). At the time I had wanted to go to grad school because I knew that I wanted to make better work and school would have the facilities to help me do that.
A: What did you do with your time off?
CC: I did this very strange thing and I moved to Beijing, China (Laughter). It wasn’t strange to me. (Laughter)
A: I don’t think it sounds strange. I think it sounds great.
CC: My friends were like, “What? What are you doing?” I had gone to China one summer through an exchange program to teach English. So when I decided to go there, I thought I would teach English and make artwork. I only intended to go for one year but I ended up staying there for two and I would have stayed longer, but my sister was graduating from college, so I came back for her graduation.
A: Looking back, do you think your experience in China influenced your work? What kind of imagery emerged?
CC: One thing that I took from my time in China that really filters into my practice now—although I didn’t realize it at the time—is an interest in large structures that exist in my surrounding environment and make me aware of my physical body in space. When I was living in Pinggu, I saw large smoke stacks, mountains, and giant inflatable arches everywhere throughout the city and its neighboring small towns. All of these have become and are still becoming imagery in my work.
AB: What are these inflatable arches?
CC: In China, there is a form of advertising where stores will put giant inflatable arches in front of the entrance. The arches usually have a slogan or a word on it and a lot of times they are colorful, either green or red or blue and sometimes there will be many of them. They are huge, and you have to walk through them to enter the store. I was fascinated by those arches. That is where my work, Arch came from. After I came back to the states and started making work I realized that the structures I was interested in—like these arches—were simple in form and that these forms lent themselves toward metaphor. Much of my work now incorporates metaphor and simplicity of form.
A: Could you tell me more about your sculpture, Arch?
CC: To me, an arch is something that you pass through, almost like a portal. That’s why I really choose that form. It reminded me of how I felt going under the inflatable arches in China. I would stare up and look at them, hypnotized. I have experienced a similar feeling when looking at certain hairstyles. I was inspired to create a sculpture that embodied that same feeling and visually represented the hairstyle using the form of the arch. Since repetition lends itself to hypnosis I felt it appropriate to use many braids.
A: You used hair extensions and braided them?
CC: Yeah, I went to beauty supply stores and I bought synthetic braiding hair. A couple different ideas went into this piece. I was thinking about synthetic hair and exoticism of hair as it relates to difference or otherness. Thinking about animals in a way, if that makes sense.
A: It does. I’ve heard people say, “I hate it when someone asks, ‘can I touch your hair?’” Is that where you’re coming from?
CC: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I remember when I was in the subway in Beijing and I had given the women my ticket and I was going down the stairs and then all of a sudden I hear, “Hey,” and I thought, “What’d I do now?” I went back up the stairs to her and she just reaches out her hand and touches my hair. I didn’t really mind—I was more concerned about trying to catch my subway train. Arch is really coming out of that kind of personal circumstance. I was also thinking about how other hairstyles, thickness, and textures of hair can be exoticized. You begin to be seen as other or different or fantastic in a way.
A: I have seen images of this work shown a couple different ways. This large arch is put together from two pieces right?
CC: I change the work every time I show it and I like that about it. I am planning on showing it as two separate arches. They become these creatures on the ground. I really like that about them. I like how the hair hangs—it becomes moss-like, or fur-like, like an animal.
A: Hair, hair care, hair products and hair politics seem to be really important themes in your work.
CC: Yes, these are important themes in my work. My work is always in some way about my experience, identity, and perspective as a black woman. For me hair is a significant part of this. I use hair to address many topics such as empowerment, freedom, maturation, beauty, pain, and more. In my personal hair care journey the key question I started to ask myself in college was, “Why do I have to straighten my hair? Why can’t I just wear it natural?” I was thinking about beauty being equated with process and alteration, versus beauty equated with a natural look.
When I was at UT, Dr. Cherise Smith [Associate professor of Art History and Director of the Warfield Center for African and African Diaspora studies] gave me the article “Black Style/Hair Politics,” by Kobena Mercer.
When I read Mercer’s text I gravitated toward his discussion of the Afro because he challenged the idea of what natural is. Mercer made the argument that the Afro, a visual marker of social solidarity during the 1960s, was a socially constructed hairstyle. No one just wakes up with their hair in an Afro. The Afro is in fact a style—you have to maintain it, manicure it, cultivate it, run your hands through it. It has gone through some kind of process. During that time, black people were interested in their “African roots” and were trying to make connections between the Afro and Africa. Mercer asserted that there were no African cultures that were wearing Afros or a style similar to it. It was interesting because it really got me thinking about what natural means.
My aunt grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. She said that she really wanted to wear an Afro, but her hair couldn’t actually do it—her hair would lay down flat. I think that’s an interesting thing too—that hairstyle was a visual representation of solidarity for African American people yet, my aunt’s experience also reveals the complexities that are involved within the politics of black hair.
A: When did you start working with hair gel? Were you working on the hair gel works and comb works simultaneously?
CC: These hair gel paintings began as an accident. I wanted to make prints of combs, but not in the traditional sense of a print. I was thinking about what material I could use that is hair-like that was going to give me a print I could emboss the comb in. I realized hair gel could do that. I took the gel with my hand and spread it on the paper and then I pressed the comb into it. When it dried, I removed the comb and the impression of the come was left on the paper. I began to see that the gel would make these patterns in the paper. I was really getting into the patterning and I thought that was a happy accident.
I then became interested in using the gel to make imagery that was associated with the ground or earth or the body. I didn’t want them to look realistically like a body, but to have the sense of a body. I really wanted them to read as skin. I’ve never owned a car; I always take the bus everywhere. I’ll look at people on the bus and some people’s bodies have a lot of history. I think that was filtering into my work subconsciously—I was thinking about how bodies have scars.
A: I can see that the gel has been applied very thickly in some areas.
CC: The thickness of the gel affects the drying time of how fast the paper will absorb it and affects the patterning. When I was working on that piece, I actually put it outside because I wanted to experiment to see if it would dry faster. It happened to rain a little—a light, misty rain—then when I brought it back in, I noticed that all the little spots were there. I didn’t really expect that to happen. It’s tricky working with the gel, it always does something that you don’t expect it to do. Going back to the idea of skin—the hair gel works are almost not even paper anymore. They become fabric-like, especially the large ones. I really like the relationship that whatever material the gel is on—canvas or paper—the gel is absorbed into it. It’s like our skin, it absorbs things.
A: How did you choose to use these hair gels?
CC: These are all gels that black women use. I was specific about that, initially. I was influenced by David Hammons’ works where he substitutes an object for a body part like he did when he created works where stones and shovels stand in as heads. Similarly, for me, the hair gel in its various shades of brown becomes a substitute for black skin.
A: What about the comb? How does that manifest in your work?
CC: For me, the comb was associated with this daily ritual of combing out my hair, and it was always a struggle. I have a complex relationship to the comb—I see it as something more than a grooming tool.
AB: Is that what you were thinking about with the Staff and Spear series? How do these relate to Variations on the Pick?
CC: Yes, the hair staffs and spears stem from that idea. A staff is essentially an appendage. One uses it to protect him or herself. It is also an object that one can lean on for support. It marks and claims space every time it makes contact with the ground. By decorating the staffs with synthetic hair, barrettes and other materials, I give them agency; they become objects of empowerment. When I began making the spears I decided to cut a comb at an angle so that the teeth became sharp like a weapon. I have a relationship to combs in that they are tools that sometimes cause pain. I felt that making spears—and therefore weapons—was fitting for the comb.
Interestingly enough, once I locked my hair, I didn’t have to use a comb anymore. It was then that I began to make the small sculptures that were Variations on the Pick. For these sculptures I continued working with the same idea of repurposing the comb as a weapon but I also expanded this concept, thinking about the comb based on its physical form. In many of them I have stripped the teeth so that they are functionless in terms of being able to comb a person’s hair. Some of them are humorous in that way.
AB: Switching gears—Did you like the UT program?
CC: I did, it was great. Like I said, it was such a contrast to my UCLA experience. It was a completely different kind of ideology. I had never had a studio before going to UT, so I had this huge painting studio. A lot of professors really promoted a studio practice of a lot of making—a lot, lot, lot of making. They emphasized that the work would come about through the act of producing.
It was really good for me to work with [former UT professor] Michael Ray Charles. I consider him my mentor. He was very crucial for me in the program, because he provided a very approachable support. If I had a question I could talk to him about it, I would just call him up. And a lot of the professors were like that. I think they’re very open to spending time with students, really working with us. Margot Sawyer was really supportive. My work had become sculptural so it was really good to have her opinion.
That’s one thing about UT, I didn’t expect there to be a community of black artists and academics, but there really is. Not that I was looking for it, you know, it was just a nice surprise. When I was an undergrad, I think it was me and one other black girl in our class. I think there were eighty people in our class when I came in that year. You get used to it. I mean my dad would take us to galleries when we were little and we were the only black people there usually. There was something really nice about having that community here at UT. I will definitely say that it was one of the things that made it a positive experience. It’s also nice to see other black artist communities in Texas as well. You have the Otabenga Jones Collective in Houston.
A: The Blanton actually just acquired a work by Jamal Cyrus, a member of the Otabenga Jones Collective.
CC: Ahhh, you did?! I love his work. That’s so cool.
A: We’re super excited about it. Do you remember the first time you came to the Blanton?
CC: Yeah, the first time I came to the Blanton was during the Desire show in 2010. I went to the conversation that Marilyn Minter and Glenn Ligon had with [former Blanton curator] Annette DiMeo Carlozzi.
AB: That sounds like an amazing talk. You will have to come and see the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the 1960s. Knowing your love of David Hammons’ work, there is a piece in there that I think you will love.
CC: I am looking forward to checking it out soon.