Alexandria Smith: High and Low are My Twin Inspirations

“I’m trying to make sense of the imagery and listen to it, just as the viewer is doing.”

Alexandria Smith splits her time between Brooklyn and Wellesley, Massachusetts; she studied art at Syracuse University and New York’s Parsons The New School for Design, as well as studying art education at New York University. Smith has won coveted awards like a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and top-flight fellowships and residencies at places like Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony.

Ahead of debuting Smith’s print in our booth at the 2019 NADA Miami art fair, organized by the New Art Dealers Alliance (where she also took part in a conversation with poet Aja Monet and fellow Absolut artist Tiff Massey), we sat down with the painter to talk about recurring themes in her work and her use of color, form and composition.

Your work frequently engages with ideas of doubling and dualism that come from the Yoruba religion and African-American folklore. Can you expand on that?

I’m looking partly at Freud’s idea of the ego, the superego, and the id, in which there are multiple selves on a psychological and emotional level, but also on a spiritual level, all articulated in a physical way in my work through these avatars or stand-ins. I’m also a Gemini, so there’s the astrological angle. As I look ahead to the future, I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality, and I became interested in the Yoruba religion. The highest rate of twin births occurs amongst the Yoruba people in Nigeria, where there’s also a high rate of infant mortality. The family of a twin that dies has a sculpture called an Ibeji created by a Babalawo to hold the spirit of the twin. The family is expected to nurture that Ibeji figure where the spirit of the deceased twin lies. It’s a powerful experience that helps them to mourn. So, all of these various references come together in my work.

You often create works where you combine European imagery, like bathers or the odalisque, with black skin or hair. How did that arise?

That came from my studies. The European image was constantly the dominant narrative when it came to my art history classes, and the rest was considered “primitive” or “tribal,” specifically African art. There was also very little exploration of African-American contemporary art, and no platform for African-American artists who weren’t creating work that was “African.” I’m fusing the inspirations that have fueled my work for all these years and creating from an authentic place.

You’ve said that you dreamed of being an animator when you were young. Because of the flat areas of color and emphasis on outline in your work, it would be easy to call your work “cartoon-like.” Does that description work for you, or does it seem reductive?

It is reductive. A cartoon is assumed to be primitive and lacking intellectual thought. I always say something like “It’s cartoonish, for lack of a better term.” It’s not Pop. It’s fueled by animation, which is considered a low art, but I’m talking about form, color, line, space, and composition. The works are intuitive but there are also intentional decisions being made. I have yet to come up with a term that properly encapsulates this style of work, or found one in my reading. I’m dying for someone to come up with the right term. But when people ask, “What kind of work do you make?”, you have to have the elevator spiel ready. When you say “cartoonish,” people at least know what you’re taking about aesthetically. So the term is a gift and a curse!

In this image, there are several ambiguities. It’s sort of sexy and sinister at the same time. The space they’re in seems both interior and exterior, and the figures seem like a line of dancers, but also like a line of goose-stepping soldiers. How did these ambiguities arise? Were these intentional or did you kind of happen upon them?

I’m always trying to bring together high and low references because they’re my twin inspirations. I was partly inspired by Robert Crumb’s “Keep on truckin’” image, and then there’s the high steppers in marching bands at historically black colleges, and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. But I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when I made it, I realized it after the fact. I’m trying to make sense of the imagery and listen to it, just as the viewer is doing. Also in that body of work, there’s conceptually a lot about visibility and invisibility. It’s about black women’s experience in society of being hypervisible and invisible at the same time. Hence the name The Incognegroes.

Can you tell us a bit about the print you showed with Absolut Art at NADA Miami?

This body of work uses the feminine figure as a departure point to explore concepts of doubling and dualism. The figures exist for their own pleasure and self-realization, a political act in itself. They are simultaneously a mirror image of a single figure and twins, which speaks to religious, spiritual and sexual states of being and reside in environments that are subtly political and oftentimes nondescript. Through the exploration of space, color, dark light and shadows, compressions of time are deeply embedded in the work.