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Adee Roberson closed out her 40th year watching the sun dip below the ocean in Negril, Jamaica, where she returned for solace and grounding after closing distance time, an exhibition that was on view at Artist Curated Projects last summer. Jamaica is a place she always comes back to: the island is her grandmother’s place of birth, a sacred, ancestral land.
Roberson and I met in Los Angeles in 2018 and have grown closer over the years, our connection deepening with the discovery of our mutual heritage and other intersections. Most recently, we have been spending time with each other in Jamaica, a shared point of origin. When she returned to Negril last November, I joined her on the beach and we took turns sipping mezcal on lounge chairs, lazily basking in the sun. The following week, she headed to Miami for a solo exhibition of her abstract paintings with Dominique Gallery at NADA Miami during Art Basel. Created in her studio in Los Angeles where she is based, the works featured pinks, oranges, and blues distinctly reminiscent of a Jamaica sky. The greens and blues in her abstractions reflect the mountains and oceans of the various places she has lived, synchronous hues that ground her connection to the land. For instance, Roberson has, coincidentally, lived next to a mango tree in both Lagos and Kingston. In many of her recent paintings, this memory merges with feeling and movement: layered, bulb-like shapes—rendered in various shades of green—echo the leaves of a mango tree, extending up its trunk and into the sky. Glowing yellow orbs can be found in a number of her more recent paintings, conjuring the brightness of the ripe fruit, while soft blues and purples mark the sky at different moments—an abstract timeline.
In Roberson’s paintings, there is seldom reference to anything recognizable outside of what may loosely resemble a gateway (a door, a window). When an overt figure is present, such as in Aquamarine (2021)—which includes a small, cutout image of Patra, a Jamaican dancehall artist, in the top left corner—it is usually a portrait of a personally significant figure or a family member. This aspect of her practice is meaningful in that the particularity of the reproduction of these images counteracts abstraction’s open-endedness; the figures become keys to unlocking Roberson’s thematic pathways. The abstract painted works are made up of bright colors and shapes that weave together with bold chromatic contrast. The color palette is vibrant, stark, emphatic, and unreserved. The shapes are organic—a mix of hard edges and gentle curves create portals and passageways into complex realms. Abstraction is used as a device to transmute her experiences and identity into a nonlinear form of storytelling that results in an archive of her movement across borders. The paintings are a testimony, an archival practice imbued with spirituality and legacy.
Historically, abstraction has been a difficult area for Black artists to find success in, as abstraction upends projected ideas of what visualized Blackness is often told to be. However, in Stuart Hall’s essay, “New ethnicities,” he speaks to a developing consciousness in Black cultural politics that moves away from an understanding of the struggle of “black experience” as a singular, hegemonic racial identity, and toward “the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black.’”1 The growing embrace of abstract work by Afro-diasporic artists speaks to this evolution of critical consciousness, reflecting self-determination, optimism, and freedom, and dispelling the myth of a unified experience. Though, in the past, Black people may have been limited to working in ways describable, transparent, and decipherable to secure the reception of their art, abstraction unlocks an escape. As Adrienne Edwards points out, “[b]lackness in abstraction… shifts analysis away from the black artist as subject and instead emphasizes blackness as material, method and mode, insisting on blackness as a multiplicity.”2 Through abstraction, artists can embrace the fullness of self as a subject, decisively moving away from objecthood. Non-representation allows for boundless exploration, capturing the essence of plurality; a notion heightened when one travels, as Roberson does, through various geographies, creating a mutable, networked understanding of self.
Roberson’s work is a progeny of this broadened viewpoint, embracing a multifaceted exploration of identity. Born in West Palm Beach to an Afro-Jamaican mother, she has always been deeply connected to her diasporic roots. She embraces the cross sections between the matriarchal Jamaican home traditions espoused by her mother, aunts, and grandmother; African American pop culture; and West African spiritual teachings. An expression of such intersectional reflection requires the adaptability abstraction allows—a practice where forms can reshape, invent, and reflect a dynamic internal world that is not hemmed in by direct representation. The process of becoming pairs well with abstraction’s limitless possibilities.
Predecessors within the field of Black abstraction have similarly demonstrated its expansiveness: Mavis Pusey, who was born in Retreat, Jamaica, in 1928 and moved to New York City as a young adult, turned to abstraction as an expression of her life in motion. As she developed her practice in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, moving between New York, London, and Paris, she engaged with the urban landscapes as the skylines evolved and grew. In Puriv (c. 1968), hard-edged, muted shapes and lines loosely convey the building materials, streets, and fire escapes that make up urban life. Dynamic angles capture the transience of cityscapes. In reflecting on her work, she once commented, “I see the new [city] construction as a rebirth, a catalyst for a new environment, and since the past must be a link to the future, in each of my works…. there is a circle to depict the never-ending continuation of natural order and all matter.”3 This cyclical notion of time, growth, and movement—conveyed in her paintings via changing cityscapes and seasons—mirrored her own migration as a Jamaican through the various places and cultures she inhabited.
Born in St. James and currently based in Chicago, Jamaican artist Leasho Johnson follows Pusey’s legacy, using abstraction as a means to unpack a complex identity while moving through different cities—his works liberated from fixed and static representation. In Rules for being free (Anansi #6) (2020), part of an ongoing series, a faint silhouette or shadow can be seen within a lush, green terrain. Bright strokes of green and yellow interrupt areas of darkness to create an immersive feeling, the lurking unknown in the just beyond. What appears to be a loosely-rendered leg pierces the air above as an amorphous shape in the foreground begins to register as a suggestion of bodies moving together. In contemplation of a queer, Black body in motion, Johnson’s dark figures teeter with abstraction—envisioned in black with vague, brown outlines and emphasized with strokes of red-orange, their fluid shapes melt into a larger landscape with sensual movement. He uses a chorus of materials—charcoal, distemper, watercolor, ink, acrylic, gold foil, oil, oil stick, and gesso—to create a stunning work in which identity, lineage, and relocation collapse into one space as another type of malleable multiplicity. Johnson’s vibrant abstract visualizations give us hope for continued survival; one queer Black person painting another, remembering another.
Roberson, Pusey, and Johnson have traveled similar routes from Jamaica to the United States with significant stops across international art centers, their works connected by an occasionally shared color palette and by a shared sense of geographic movement, wherein their Jamaican identities have also been forced to shift and evolve. Each found abstraction as a means of navigating the distance between themselves and their changing environments.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, painter June Edmonds often experiences her abstraction as communications from the ancestors, illuminating future possibilities anchored in previous migration. Joy of Other Suns (2021) features muted and dark colors (shades of plum, olive, deep berry, crimson, mustard) painted in sweeping arcs—the occasional periwinkle or blush imbue a tenderness or even a vulnerability that contrasts with the work’s overall somber tones. The almond shapes created at the intersection of Edmonds’ bold strokes are charged with a sense of transport, creating energetic gateways through which she might forge connection to her African American ancestors.
During a hurricane in Kingston last summer, Roberson recorded music using a synthesizer and a kalimba, an instrument with African origins. She understands one of her roles to be memory keeper, and her practice is a means of resisting the dilution of time. The rain pattered urgently on the roof, wind whipping through the trees and electronic notes, the cosmic and airy sounds of the inherited instrument combining in an organic, magical soundscape. Roberson’s abstract practice similarly speaks to a mysticism found in weaving together her diverse lineage.
Via the boundarilessness of abstraction, the smells of her grandmothers and aunts cooking together in a South Florida kitchen might swirl together with the music she performed while in Lagos, colliding to create a kaleidoscopic future that holds stories of the past for safekeeping. Abstraction reflects an intuitive dialogue between the Black artist and the world—one where they are free to work outside of the confines of a prescribed identity.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 27