With a name like “Coon Alchemy,” I certainly didn’t think that I would be writing about this exhibition, but it turns out that my fears were unjustified. Ibn Kendall is an African- American artist who lives and works in his native Brooklyn. He was visiting his family in Jamaica and came across old photos of his relatives and their friends dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. What impressed him was that even though his family wasn’t even close to being wealthy, they displayed “delightful expressions” and “possessed the costume and countenance of movie stars.” Kendall quotes his grandmother as saying “just because you’re broke doesn’t mean you need to show it.”
With this exhibition, Kendall turns the inflammatory word “coon” on its head. By combining it with “alchemy,” he demonstrates how his culture survives and thrives by turning scraps into gold.
When I asked him about the source of inspiration for this exhibition, Kendall told me how he and a friend were listening to Jay Z, and they started thinking about the roots of hip-hop, which was born in part by the lack of resources to buy the equipment required to start a band. This forged a new type of creativity: using turntables in a new way. Kendall also spoke of how the term “soul food” means that one had to have a lot of soul to make the food palatable since it’s really the scraps and leftovers that are the elements with which to be dealt. Soul food is now a cherished cuisine served in some of the finest restaurants in the city. Kendall applied this concept to his own exhibition.
The process was quite original: Kendall first digitized the old photographs. These were transferred to an acrylic painted canvas using a system that is similar to a rub-on tattoo that children use. The acrylic background’s color is specifically chosen to radiate an archaic vibe. Kendall is primarily a painter, and is used to working with a wide spectrum of colors. It was a challenge to limit his palate to basically black and white. This required him to find another means to explore his territory.
What he did was create a sort of sculptural painting medium. Using chairs, 78 rpm records, old fans, found elements from the street and items bought at the Salvation Army, Kendall attached these to the paintings. The transferred photographs often appear on these objects as well, illustrating the premise of turning discarded elements into gold.
“Doing so, I am changing the context of coon from an ethnic slur to a term of endearment achieved by the ability to make something out of nothing,” Kendall stated. “This elevated them [portrait subjects] above their original limitations.”
Indeed, a great sense of dignity exudes from these works. What first caused me to feel uncomfortable soon opened me up to a new world. These works possess a spirit of life and determination that refuses to die.
Through Feb. 21. NY Studio Gallery, 154 Stanton St. (at Suffolk), 212-627-3276.