Interview with Antonio McAfee

WWS 20 (Washerwoman Syndrome 2020)

First question I usually ask all of the artists, what are you doing for VisArts? And why have you selected these particular works to be in your show?

Around 2011 I started doing research on W.E.B. Du Bois and the exhibition of American Negroes. His research and info-graphs, detailing the middle class economic status of African Americans at that time and portraits that went along with the exhibition, are things I’ve been working from for the past nine years. Du Bois led me to research reconstruction, and I came across an instance of activism and protest by a group of Washerwomen who went on strike against the city of Atlanta in 1881 to advocate for higher wages and better working conditions. So, as I researched these women, I began to focus on collective agency, organization, labor rights, local policies and legislation, and how politicians influenced the labor force, and how the labor force had to push back against those entities for higher pay, respect, and decency. 

The idea of the collective and group agency has been swirling around in my head a lot, especially with a lot of the things that went on over the summer of 2020. Organizing and campaigning, and finding strength in numbers to combat whatever ills a person is going through economically, occupationally, personally. The show at VisArts is an articulation of all of that, but it’s also a container for my own feelings and how I went through the transition of being in my head, being very concerned about the virus, then finding a community through online platforms. I was spending more time on the computer, while also becoming more socially engaged and aware of what was going on. 

So the show has all of these ideas swirling around. There’s a video, in which I appropriate this protest scene from The Standard, which came out in 2008. It’s about a South African police officer who turned into the most accomplished bank robber in the country, and it’s wrapped around apartheid. There’s a protest scene in the middle that I sampled or appropriated, and put back into the video. I’m making horns or vuvuzelas, which is a South African horn that are used at football games. It sounds like a bunch of bees when you go to the stadium and hear all of these people blowing into the plastic horns. So that linked to my idea of the collective and the energy and the power around that.

This year has been really unresolved. I’ve made some new work, four pieces that were at the Care museum in an exhibition that was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. It’s been a whirlwind this whole year, especially since March, so I’ve been making pieces, but a lot of it feels quite unresolved at the moment. Part of it is that I’ve been in and out of the studio, so my momentum has been floundering a little bit. At the same time, there’s just a lot of emotions to grapple with and handle. For me, I didn’t feel like I had to change anything about my work because I was always talking about labor rights, and the humanity in labor and resistance, especially when it comes to American history and Black history as well. A lot of stereotypes towards African Americans that were deemed insufficient as far as labor, so being lazy or unintelligent, were just forms of resistance. For instance, when the slaves chose not to work or they would rest, or they would find ways to get out of work, that in itself was a form of resistance. It was articulated as being lazy, at the same time when you’re working for free and your whole life is preoccupied by the means of other people to give you resources for housing and food, you strategize ways to find time for yourself, or to control your own time, or control your own body.

With the Washerwomen, I became enthralled by ordinary people who had the gaul to organize a campaign and go against the system that towered over them. I’m very interested in ordinary people that have a sense of mystery and lore, largely because of the way they were written about in history.

The VisArts show is a culmination of all of these things. I’m focusing on three main bodies of work to keep myself focused and centered, but at the same time the work feels unresolved. The trick is trying to figure out how to capitalize on all of these unresolved feelings and experiences, while creating work that is still poignant and elaborate.

How were you able to construct this unique style for yourself, and how were you able to develop and merge that into something that works for you in a multitude of mediums?

In 2011 I decided just to work with the Du Bois portraits, and put glue on the prints and work from the prints after the glue was removed, so the images are distorted and partially faded. As I started to repeat this process I had piles of these dried glue by products, so I started putting medium and more glue on those to create sculptures. I started off very simple and snowballed the process or the method of making these things based on practicality. Finding materials that will still give me some see through areas, and this idea of a handmade transparency, started to become much more of a concern as I built on this process. I began to experiment with materials that would preserve the organic nature of the photo, as if the image formed itself, while also referencing negatives or transparencies. Through using this method and creative problem solving I began to create pieces that were larger and lasted longer. I started printing photographs on lexjet, which is a print adhesive paper, to make them a larger scale without needing frames for them as well. As I start to come across issues of physically creating a piece, the decisions I make to solve those problems, evolves the process, so the work happens pretty organically 

The process of layering seems very prevalent in your work, not just in the physical pieces but in the concepts as well.

I strive to have as many layers as reasonable within the work, and the physical pieces themselves, attempting to make them thicker and to have multiple layers of medium to build up a body. This also goes back to the way I think about the content as well. For me, it has to be a symbiotic relationship between the idea and the physical piece. Being aware of myself in the time I’m in, what’s going on in current events, locally, nationally, internationally, while also looking at history and seeing the dots back and forth connect. I try to be as informed as I can, while being as specific as possible with the references to history that I use to create my images. So, I stick with the Du Bois collection, while adding on other layers to it. The reason I stuck to the story of the Washerwomen is because that explained some of the data that the rise in income and fall in income, and the change in occupations that were outlined in Du Bois’ infographics from The Exhibition of American Negroes at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. 

It’s been very interesting looking at American history through the experiences of black women in particular. Not only am I looking at American History, but I’m looking at it through the stories of black women. The work contains a lot of layered ideas, but for me that’s also part of the fun. For my piece Emporia, a funeral piece of my grandmother, which is a long vertical yellow portrait of her at her viewing when she passed away. The body is made of the cover art of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. So, sometimes I connect disparate things to the portraits I’m working with to make them interesting and fascinating, while also solving formal issues. I chose that album cover because of the yellow tone and the earthy tones in the cover art done by Efram Wolff. 

The connection and the layers might be tight, such as the washerwomen with the Du Bois exhibition, or they can be pretty loose, like my grandmother and Stevie Wonder which have no connection. That just goes into how I think about things, I tend to think like a DJ who samples and looks at records and asks, who’s playing trumpet on this? Who plays drums on this and what record label is this on? Oh, this label also has these other artists on there… Through the research and digging, one will find all these layers and connections that may not seem obvious at first, but that revelatory part of discovery is the most exciting part of it all.

What is your process in discovering composition? I noticed that particularly in the Washerwoman Series, it seems that the works are channeling the women’s essence as well as their story. How did you discover the process of layering and merging disparate ideas together? 

Another idea that I’m interested in is adding elements that make the work more mysterious, that could bring doubt, that allow the viewer to abandon their expectations of how these individuals or Washerwomen are depicted or who they might be. Having watched Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, I hope to add more science fiction and imagination to the portraits I’m creating and what they are able to represent. 

I take a lot of liberties, the Du Bois portraits were shown anonymously, I have the names of a few of them but I don’t really know anything about them. With the washerwomen series, I haven’t found any pictures of these women that were in the Washerwoman strike and the union they formalized. That is in part because Du Bois intended for them to be anonymous, but I’m also subjected to the documentation of the time. I’m often looking at newspapers which were really biased at that time, often using predominantly white sources, such as the employers and the city. Based on how ill reported and recorded, or intentionally omitted, their histories may have been, I don’t have much to go on based on the other people’s research, which is why going online is important to inform myself. However, the lack of information also gives me the freedom to add myself into the work, so it’s not all didactic about history. A lot of the studio time is intuitive, it’s based on colors and tones and what looks good together, textures that make sense together. It feels like I’m making up these rules, even though I’m doing basic art, formal consideration and design considerations, having so many textures and patterns as I make these transfers I’m trying to match elements that fit together, even though it’s all abstract. Is there some type of continuity even though there’s nothing representational happening? 

So you try to build up your story as you go along, rather than having a prescribed story beforehand? 

It’s back and forth, some pieces I have a clear idea of what I want them to look like, other pieces I’m not so sure, and it comes out through making them. People always see things in the work that I don’t see. I started working in collage and transfers because photoshop became too prescriptive. The process lacked surprises and I could feel myself repeating the steps over and over again. With the collage work, I’m more open to what the process and materials are giving me, and having to adapt to that.


Do you feel that rewriting history is an overarching theme in your work? 

During my time at Morgan State University, when I was reading The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois, the text touched me, because it talked about a personal exercise or battle with oneself and one’s culture. It wasn’t just this binary discussion of black and white that comes up in American History, it was asking who are you all of this? Despite being balck or white, who are you as an individual within those narratives? 

That really captivated me, and gave me some agency to look into history, especially when I came across The Exhibit of American Negroes, I was obsessed with understanding this exhibition and how Du Bois linked sociology with photography. That  text gave me the confidence to dig into history and alter archives and collections, that throughout my education, had always been presented to me as finite and concrete. Working with various archives some of the photos were pristine, while others were deteriorating. This documentation was not being presented as permanent pieces of history, it was an organic thing that would deteriorate and change. All of this gave me an empowered feeling to go to history and understand it for myself. I wouldn’t say I’m rewriting history, because I don’t think my work is far reaching enough. I don’t think it’s structured for that purpose, but I do feel like I’m a student of history, and I’m willing to interject myself and question what I’m taking in. At the very least I hope I’m altering expectations and inviting the viewer to question these histories as well. 

In asking that question though, you’re also touching on Kerry James Marshall, which is one of the main missions in his creative practice. I look at his work a lot, and how he navigates professionally, as well as what’s happening in his studio. I think for me to really have that place in history, my work would have to be in historic institutions and in these books, and as he would say, to really have a foot in history there would have to be a period of the Maryland arts scene, or the DMV contemporary art scene in which I can not be left out. 

Which is why I like adding different things like Twitch, and the washerwomen images or music together, as a way to interject more of myself into the work. In that a new or unique perspective can emerge because it’s all me and that’s the only thing I have that no one else has. Anyone can pick up the same images and do this process, but they don’t have my distinct perspective, they’ll have their own.

I guess that’s why a lot of people are artists in general, everyone has a unique perspective and no matter what technical level an artist has achieved, it’s the perspective that really counts. 

Yeah. Also, the urgency to execute that perspective, there’s an obsessive quality to want to get that perspective out and share it with people. Many people work in their homes and don’t share it, but the tendency to be obsessed with something and sacrifice a lot just to get it out. I think that’s one of the core things too, to act on it and realize it. 

I have one last question for you, since you are an educator to college students, do you have any advice for your students or aspiring artists who want to use photography or their own work to channel identity or work with history in a way? 

My main advice is just to stay focused, find scenarios and opportunities that give you time to focus, that’s really what it’s about. Regardless of how many jobs you have to work, or your family or housing situation, put yourself in a situation where you have the time and energy to do what you want or need to do. For me, it was going to grad school right after undergrad, going to grad school again, and then coming back and focusing on one source material, which was the Du Bois exhibition, images, and glue. It’s all about the work and giving yourself the time, mentally and physically, to do what you need to do. You have to decide what you want, be specific about that and then go for it.


This interview was conducted by Iona, the Exhibitions Intern from 2018-2020.