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Upon entering a tunnel papered in fading Financial Times newsprint, I was greeted by the sound of old-timey music and a perfectly blasé showgirl sitting under a crystal chandelier. From her booth, she directed me to a turnstile and through a curtain. Thus, the stage was set for Ghanaian American artist Derek Fordjour’s first solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, titled Magic, Mystery & Legerdemain. Exiting the tunnel, I encountered a bright gallery filled with large, confetti-like collaged paintings. Further inside, a fringed banner read “The Legend of Black Herman,” promoting an actual magic show that took place in the gallery during the exhibition’s run. Across the show, Fordjour used immersive spectacle and the theme of magic to explore the complexities of racial identity, privilege, and survival, casting a spotlight on illusions of racial equality and a smoke-and-mirrors system that benefits some to the detriment of others.
Fordjour’s point of departure was the figure of the Black magician—specifically, the famed 20th-century illusionist Black Herman, whose performances combined conventional stage magic with traditions that evolved out of the African and South American diasporas: faith healing, Biblical stories, and African myths.1 Herman toured during the Jim Crow era, building a lucrative career selling his healing elixirs and practicing prestidigitation. Claiming to be immortal and most known for his three-day-long “buried alive” act, Herman’s mystical fame exceeded well beyond his lifetime, with many believing his death was just another stunt. Like the larger-than-life story of Black Herman, Fordjour’s subjects are often a blend of history and folklore.2 Many of the paintings in the exhibition depict actual Black performers—historical magicians, jazz singers, Magic Johnson—grounding the fantastical, experiential elements of the show in fact (or at least in legend). Collectively, the visual narratives across the exhibition form an expansive definition of magic. One painting, Cargo (all works 2022), depicts Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped slavery by shipping himself from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, a vanishing act that culminated in his freedom.
Fordjour’s large-scale tableau paintings recall peeling vaudevillian event posters made to draw in wide-eyed audiences from a bygone era. The mixed-media works glow with an inner light, their collaged surfaces softened with charcoal, oil pastel, reflective foil, and newsprint. To create his paintings, the artist builds up cardboard, newsprint, and other materials like sediment on the surfaces and then tears away at them, exposing high-key underpaintings that vibrate optically. Deep fault lines sometimes run across the canvases, as in Jazzland, in which a long vertical crack swerves into the bodice of a singer’s lavender gown, levitating the imagined fabric and offering glimpses of hidden pink, lime green, and scattered bits of newspaper articles. Other paintings present various forms of Black performance and pomp: a group of cotillion dancers in formalwear bow and twirl in unison; an onstage magician pulls a hoop around his levitating assistant. Fordjour opens the collaged substrate of his canvases as if using the triumphs and toils of his labor in the studio to echo the triumphs and toils of his subjects.
An intimate backroom of the gallery featured a painted portrait of Fannie Davis, infamous for running numbers in 1960s Detroit; in Seven Eighty-eight, she sits in an armchair holding the phone receiver to her ear. A legendary antecedent of the Michigan state lottery, Davis’ underground gambling operation provided for her family and circulated money within a community heavily impacted by redlining.3 The painting speaks to the sleight-of-hand needed to survive when white supremacy has denied livable wages, let alone vast generational wealth, to people of color.
For the duration of the exhibition, a live magic show played out in the gallery’s back building, which was transformed into an ersatz theater. The wood-paneled foyer was filled with elements of Black cultural vernacular: vintage framed photographs of Black magicians, some hung slightly askance; a Pan-African flag; a table of herbs and books that ranged in topic from modern witchcraft4 to tomes on famed Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. Co-created by Fordjour and the artist Numa Perrier, the production starred professional magician Kendrick “ICE” McDonald, who performed as Black Herman, and actor Nubia Bowe, who played both the magician’s assistant and the ticket booth attendant at the exhibition’s entrance. McDonald’s Herman donned a bright yellow tuxedo and matching top hat. With campy showmanship and gospel-style singing, he staged classic feats of legerdemain as he told his life story.
The word “legerdemain,” meaning sleight of hand, derives from the French léger de main, meaning “light of hand.” In this show, Fordjour’s light hand was revealing, nimbly exposing white supremacy’s chicanery and carving out space for counternarratives. Systemic racism is woven into the very canvas of everyday life, and its greatest trick is convincing a complicit white majority of its invisibility and immutability. Through the liminal space of the gallery-turned-theater, Fordjour combated this trickery with his own kind of magic, transporting the viewer like a rabbit pulled through a hat. Magic creates a space where binaries of real and artifice, possible and impossible, and truth and deception become blurred. Fordjour’s spectacular excavation of artful deceptions, such as the numbers game and postal escape scheme, revealed how they acted as foils to racial inequity, many with a life-affirming spirit of levity. This show was a spectacle in the best way possible—an effusive, multisensory experience that provided the freedom to suspend belief, unravel deception, and celebrate legends—like the refrain McDonald’s Black Herman sang for his audiences: “But first you must believe.”
This review was originally published in Carla issue 29.