Theresa Chromati’s Solo Exhibition, BBW, at Platform Gallery

by Angela N. Carroll

BBW is a journey into the surreal and psychedelic imaginings of Theresa Chromati, transforming Platform Gallery into a wilderness of sprawling foliage and glitter-bandana tartan. In this space, ink-black characters peer from masks into worlds beyond. You, the viewer, peek into windows where characters freely explore themselves and their environment.

In Chromati’s paintings and colorful installations, the characters are nude except for matching masks and ‘pussy lip-ass strap-on’s’ (yes, I just said that). As an exhibit, BBW bridges the absurd and bizarre while also interrogating stigmas and cultural appropriations of black women’s bodies and lived experiences.

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Theresa Chromati: “I want to capture black beauty in its ultimate dimension. I want to give people a view of what I see as beautiful. Various body types and imperfections. There are a lot of people within each of the characters.”

Though the landscapes and characters are highly stylized, the poses they embody are significant.

“The figures are inspired by a lot of the body language that I’ve grown up seeing, of my mom and her friends and people around me. I like to capture body language, like old school 90s throwback club photos with the spray painted backgrounds. Especially the legs and stances. Some of those things were incorporated into the BBW world.”

BBW has an expansive dreamlike quality. The length of the characters’ limbs are likened more to branches than arms or legs. The dynamic movement of the characters stretching against the timeless landscape of BBW is a magical and trippy experience to behold.

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But there is also a shock trigger to this work. The hyper-sexualized representations of black women’s bodies coupled with the framing of the pieces reminded me of the uncomfortable gaze you encounter with Gaugain’s Tahitian portraits; a kind of creeper spooky spectacle. In BBW, viewers are strange voyeurs intruding on the happenings of Beautiful. Black. Women.

Chromati is a master at creating playful tension. Each BBW contribution confronts the awkward power dynamics at play with voyeurism. To watch an unknowing subject is a violent intrusion, and BBW blurs the hard line between public and private space, objectified and exhibitionist, watched and watcher.

“Beneficial Boot Wear,”and “Blessed Bonding Woes,” personify the voyeur archetype as a stark white masked female bodied character. The body language and color of the white character drastically contrast the dramatic angularity and dark color of the BBW’s.  Though the white character is only featured twice in the exhibition, her presence is palpable.   

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-1-24-02-pm“Blessed Bonding Woes”

“I like to add elements of realism in the work and then create surreal dimension in a very stylized over the top features. I started using masks a year ago it was just a natural addition. I like how they add a mysterious aspect and masks can represent anyone. I like that connection. I like to play with partnership and unity. It provides a larger conversation.”

In “Blessed Bonding Woes,” the white figure watches from behind foliage as two black figures sunbathe. The black figures knowingly engage the staring intruder. Grinning masks hide the faces of all.

“Beneficial Boot Wear” looks into the bedroom of the white figure as she tries on a severed black leg. The white figure ties the leg onto her own and flexes her accomplishment out the window. Another leg lies limp across the door. “Beneficial Boot Wear” is an eerie reflection on the violence of appropriation. The white characters’ smirking mask looks on in admiration at the newly acquired limb. Jungle green creeps in through the window as the leg arches out beyond the sill.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-1-25-01-pm“Beneficial Boot Wear”

“Throughout black lives and black women’s spaces we often are being told that we aren’t beautiful, but behind closed doors the white figure is in her house attaching a whole black leg to her body. She’s happy about it! “ 

The other works included in BBW focalize community dynamics more than external interrogation of those interactions. The BBW’s dance, posture and embrace each other in their landscape.

“I wanted to talk more about the polarization of women and passivity. Especially with BBW, because women are seen as these objects, oversexualized objects. I wanted to reclaim that and figure out ways to represent what I find beautiful. Which is primarily black, and the things that women go through. The connection between women and beauty. The enjoyment of life, and interruption. I wanted to capture the unity with women by showing them on pedestals. I also use arches a lot which adds a holiness to the figures.”

In “Black Blissful Worship, BBW,” the lanky limbs of three BBW’s stretch across the void and checkered landscape to hold hands and look beyond the world they inhabit. The women are elevated by pedestals. Though their faces are covered by masks, their erect neon colored nipples and pussy lip-ass strap-on’s form a face on the characters’ torsos which smiles. The faceless characters are lost in black blissful worship; a sacred silence which is both beautiful and disturbing to observe.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-1-25-08-pmBlack Blissful WorshipBBW”

“The nipples remind me of baby bottle nipples. I see moms, like when they go out and turn up. The pussy lips came around the same time as the masks. The figures were bare for years. I wanted to show fluidity, add objects and layers to my work.”

“Between Braiders Weaving,” (pictured at top) is an intimate portrait of a BBW braiding the hair of another BBW. A comraderie is reflected in the familiar portrayal of the rituals of black femininity. Chromati revealed that the work is an unconscious representation of herself and her mother.

“I’m learning a lot about myself through the work I make. This is me and my mom.”

The checkered terrain and overgrown green organisms that overtake the BBW world are characters in their own right.  The invasive omnipresence of the organisms creates a more ominous than benign aesthetic. The sprawling presence which extends beyond the frame and throughout the gallery, coupled with the soundscape composed specifically for the exhibition by Baltimore based electronic musician Pangelica, facilitates complete viewer immersion into the BBW world.

“I wanted to play with the environments I was exposed to as a little girl. And environments where people assume black women should be: the kitchen, the wilderness. I wanted to combine those places. I’m obsessed with clean lines and edges. I like the contrast that the checkboard adds and placing women in a kitchen-like environmentor  domestic space, but showing them in nondomestic ways and settings. So I enjoyed playing with the checkboard in white space or in the forest.”

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-1-23-42-pm“Behind Baes WorthBBW”

“Behind Baes Worth, BBW,” is one of the tamer works in the collection and the only one that features a male figure. A glittering black male figure and BBW embrace in front of a Guyana flag checkered pyramid. The BBW looks out towards the object in her outstretched hand. The blindfolded masculine figure faces the opposite direction. The BBW wears a Guyanese flag bikini bottom.

“I took a reference from a ping pong player from Guyana, and it inspired me. I wanted to incorporate the body language from the women in party photos of my aunts. I wanted to show the presence of man, present but not the focal point. She’s still shining and focusing on goals despite his presence.”

BBW is a lush collection that cleverly activates caricatured representations of blackness, and black womens’ bodies in particular, and it evokes questions of beauty and subjectivity. The overt parodied eroticism of the BBW’s will titillate and make you uneasy. BBW is best experienced in person, with you standing in the middle of the world Theresa Chromati has created, observing peculiar ruptures in reality.

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Author Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of contemporary culture.

BBW is on view at Platform Gallery September 10th – October 2nd.

Visit the artist talk on Thursday September 29th 2016 , 6 – 8pm.  

Photos by Justin Tsucalas