In his artistic practice, Tavares Strachan has a tendency to synthesise multifarious points of view on the cultural dynamics of scientific knowledge. It is within his thematic remit to embrace aeronautics, astronomy, deep-sea exploration, and extreme climatology, to mention only a smattering. His rather monumental allegories recount cultural displacement, human aspiration, and mortal limitation. His lexicon reveals an effort to mobilise community and promote societal change. The essence of protest is inherent.
Two neon signs are suspended above the entrance to the Barclays Center subway station, which is situated on a plaza in downtown Brooklyn, the same plaza that overflowed with protestors after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. Last October, Bahamian-born New York-based artist Tavares Strachan installed You belong here and We belong here. The artwork is the result of three years of planning and was commissioned by Joe and Clara Tsai, who run the Barclays Arena. In these sweeping phrases, teardrop-shapes cap the “b” and the “h”. The bottom of the “g” is long and leans far forward, even as it also reaches back. This fluid script evolved from the calligraphic style that the 42-year-old artist used as a high schooler back in the Bahamas. It has an antiquated feel, recalling how a cartographer would pen names by hand, with a flourish. Yet, in the glass-fronted Barclays Center, reflections of Strachan’s neons skew and mix with the reflections of advertisements and other such evidence of a fast-gentrifying Brooklyn. They mark space in a loud, competitive, contested, and sometimes uncaring landscape.
Tavares Strachan, ‘Graduation Day,’ 2021, oil, enamel, and pigment on acrylic, 2 panels: 30 x 60 x 2 inches each, total: 60 x 60 x 2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, photo by Tom Powel Imaging
Tavares Strachan, ‘Ethiopia,’ 2021, oil, enamel, and pigment on acrylic, 2 panels: 30 x 60 x 2 inches each, total: 60 x 60 x 2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, photo by Tom Powel Imaging
Tavares Strachan, ‘Barbara Jordan,’ 2021, oil, enamel, and pigment on acrylic, 2 panels: 30 x 60 x 2 inches each, total: 60 x 60 x 2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, photo by Tom Powel Imaging
I met with Strachan at his studio across the river in Manhattan, coincidentally very near another arena, Madison Square Garden. Strachan is wearing a sweatshirt from his clothing label Bahamas Air and Sea Exploration Center (BASEC). On the front of the sweatshirt is an image of Matthew Henson, a largely uncredited early 20th-century Black explorer. Strachan has many projects in progress, including one this coming May, a solo exhibition uptown at the Marian Goodman Gallery. Printouts are piling up around a large-scale photo printer, and paintings are in various states of drying or packing. An assistant cracks open a mould; others buzz about on the phone. But Strachan is calm and confident. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In his time, this artist has launched a satellite, trained as a cosmonaut, and brought 40 children to Venice to sing when he represented the Bahamas at the Venice Biennale.
Over tea, he speaks in the riveting equivalent of vast strides. He describes how he doesn’t feel comfortable having a practice that is solely rooted in the art world, and how he wants to know more about the ways communities might thrive collectively. He talks about pan-Africanism and Black solidarity in the Caribbean. “We all came on ships from Africa,” he remarks, “the ships just landed in different places.” He also evokes Marcus Garvey. “It’s 1918,” he says, “and this radical Jamaican dude comes to you, and he’s like, ‘We’re gonna build this shipping line.’ And you’re like, ‘Excuse me?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do this.’ Then he raises millions of dollars.” Strachan proposes that Garvey was a conceptual artist. The means he employed were speeches, parades, organisation-building, business, and demonstrations. His ideas had powerfully practical dimensions, even if he made mistakes and significant enemies, even if he didn’t always succeed.