In his first institutional solo exhibition, US artist Esteban Jefferson presents new and existing works that critique legacies of colonialism and racism as encoded in public monuments and urban space. Titled May 25th, 2020, the date of George Floyd’s murder, the exhibition is divided between three galleries. In the darkened metal-lined gallery, works capture moments of intense turmoil from the week following Floyd’s death. Two further galleries feature images of the residue and broader effects of the demonstrations in the months that followed. Each work is titled with a date, time-stamped as a testament to a particular moment in time and social ferment.
Jefferson’s paintings draw on photographs of sites local to his studio, which he sees transform over time. Combining line drawing with painted details, they replicate the way his attention is caught by the jarring dislocation of official intent vs street level intervention, and peeling layers between the two. The scale of the works references the tradition of history painting where vast canvases enshrine nationalistic narratives and military triumphs. Jefferson inverts this tradition to memorialise and monumentalise the fugitive mark making of the activist and protestor, whose disruption of the normal flow of the city is erased by the passing of time, yet – perhaps optimistically – can contribute to political change.
Three paintings represent moments from the most violent days of the protests. A diptych of a burnt-out police van documents one of many that were left on the street by the police as a heavy-handed reference to the chaos that ensues in an unpoliced society. A flag hangs in a window on a housing project. Its colours – green, red, and black – are those of the Pan-African movement. Originally an artwork by David Hammons, the flag has since become ubiquitous as a symbol of African American nationhood. Elsewhere, a looted Dior storefront in Soho is boarded up and tagged.
Two paintings depict the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial statue, which was positioned outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The statue features Roosevelt on horseback, flanked on each side by a Native American and Black man at his feet. The statue was the focus of a sustained campaign of criticism for years, debates around which are articulated in the Landmark Preservation Commission meeting projected in the space, held in 2021 after the decision to move the sculpture. As a result of pressure exerted during the Black Lives Matter protests the sculpture was finally removed, but not destroyed, in January 2022. It will be relocated to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota (out of sight, out of mind). An open question lingers as to the way in which discussions of racial inequality are tabled and then closed with real change un-effected.
The final gallery is organised through two pairs of works, each showing a particular site that has changed over time. The first two focus on a defaced monument to George Washington. The second in the pair captures the city’s response to the vandalism. By painting over the plinth, a game of cat and mouse is created between defacer and state, both trying to control the image. The enduring permanence of bronze, the chosen medium for disseminating the image of colonial power, collides with the contingency of the spray can. The second pair depict a boarded-up deli. In one version a poster of the iconic civil rights movement image of Gloria Richardson pushing aside a soldier’s bayonetted rifle in 1968 is pasted on the hoarding. In the next painting the image has been covered over with graffiti. These works can be read as a powerful metaphor of the continuing pace of history, the ebb and flow of forgetting and remembrance, political change, and the erasure of liberty under successive governments.
For more information, visit Goldsmiths CCA