Sometimes it seems as if racial tension fueled by stereotypes is by design. The very words “black” and “white,” are polar opposites contrasting darkness and evil with angelic purity.
Detroit artist Tony Rave has had enough of it.
In his first solo gallery exhibition Michael Jesus Crisis, Rave paints the white facades of ceramic angels and depictions of Jesus Christ in blackface. Rather than the racist mockery of African Americans blackface has evoked throughout history, Rave’s work aims to reframe these images as beautiful.
With that, he challenges visitors to Ferndale’s M Contemporary Art gallery, where his work is displayed, to question the association of whiteness with righteousness.
A piece called “The Birth of Gucci” shows a pair of (white) angels holding another angel on a pedestal as two Sambo-esque figurines eating watermelon surround it. Atop their heads, the blackfaced figures wear the Gucci insignia fashioned as halos.
Rave tells us the black figurines are actually salt and pepper shakers he found in a Detroit vintage shop (kinky hair, watermelon, and all) that he wanted to put to better use.
“I felt bad for them like they were actually human,” he says. “Whoever created them, actually made something beautiful. I think they’re really beautiful, but I know the intention was wrong. So what I’m trying to do is put them on here to create a better story and to have them live on in a better way.”
There’s a lot going on here. On one hand, the piece stands in hostile defiance against the notion of whiteness alone holding more value — the wings of the angels have been broken and placed on the backs of the blackfaced figures instead. On the other, it critiques facets of Black culture that praise materialism.
“Think about how people worship material items,” he says. “The Gucci symbols are the lust, and that’s pointing the finger at Black folks. Specifically, the niche of Black people that spend outside of our means.”
I can’t help but wonder if the piece was influenced by the Gucci store that recently opened in downtown Detroit.
“It’s just it is what it is, you know,” Rave says about the store. “I think we all have certain things that we desire, and they may not always make sense but we desire them. I don’t agree with a lot of what’s going on. I don’t agree with preachers driving really expensive cars and living such lavish lifestyles either. I grew up in churches like that.”
Rave’s disdain for Christianity echoes through the exhibit as he defaces the religion’s iconography. He tells us he grew up in a “stereotypical Black church.”
“We go to church, my mom’s crying in church, [with her] hands up and the whole church is rocking,” he recalls. “We packed in there. It’s hot. We can’t leave until three o clock. I hated it. I just made up my mind (at 11 years old) like, I’m not doing this. At the same time, I’m still religious. I believe in God. I knew God was real, but I knew it wasn’t this God.”
Rave recently converted to Islam, a religion that he says “doesn’t put an image on God.”
Other pieces in the exhibit address the toxicity of fast food and the marketing tactics that make it addicting.
Rave says about a KFC bucket filled with broken wings, crucified Jesus, and a blackfaced angel with Swarovski crystals as eyes, “if you look deeply into it, I’m layering this white image that was created for white people — this innocent white angel on top of this not-so-innocent blackface that they also created. It’s showing the truth on top of the truth with the disguise of this glittery thing.”
He continues, “[companies] make [fast food] look aesthetically pleasing. It smells good, it draws you in, you get this deal. These are images that collect in our lower-income and urban communities. When we speak of our ghettos and our hoods we’re not talking about it like it’s the entire Black community, but I’m talking about directly where I’m from — the Eastside of Detroit where you got Little Caesars, KFC, the corner store, and that’s it. It’s no good food around you. The government keeps us spending on these material things and poisoning our bodies so that we’re dependent.”
Elsewhere an angel is desperately trying to escape the shoelaces of a Jordan (the shoe) which have him trapped like a Japanese rope bondage scene.
Some of Rave’s work is just plain silly by his own admission. One piece, for instance, is a jar of mayonnaise with the label replaced by a photo of Jesus that’s encased in a block of resin.
It’s easy to misunderstand or even be offended by the body of work, which Rave acknowledges.
“That’s the thing. When people look at this, I’m not going to always be here,” he explains. “Depending on the person that they are, they can take [it how] they want… Some people may think it’s racist. That’s what they have to deal with if they don’t want to look deeper. This is something I know that is very complicated and controversial but it’s not my intention to be negative. It’s to fight back against this subconscious war — this psychological warfare.”
Looking underneath the surface to question how certain imagery affects our understanding of black and white can be taxing, but Rave forces viewers to do it — no matter how uncomfortable it may make them.
Tony Rave’s “Michael Jesus Crisis” is up until Oct. 8 at M Contemporary Art, 205 East 9 Mile, Ferndale; mcontemporaryart.com. An artist talk is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m.