Curated by Donovan Johnson and Seph Rodney at the new Johnson Lowe Gallery in Atlanta, The Alchemists brings together an amalgamation of works that unearths the transformation of the mundane into extraordinary forms. Of the twenty-nine participating artists, many utilize a practice within the traditions of painting, collage, assemblage, and drawing. With exceptional diversity—both in breadth and scale—The Alchemists underscores the myriad of creative expressions at the heart of Black culture. Embracing an intergenerational lens with a roster of artists working across the United States and internationally, Johnson Lowe’s inaugural exhibition “reflects on the transmutation of Black experiences and ancestral legacy,” according to Donovan Johnson, the gallery’s new director. For Johnson, “each work in the exhibition represents the artist’s introspective contemplation of the intricate processes of identity, culture, and the human condition.”
The exhibition’s title is inspired by the medieval practice of alchemy, popularized during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Western Europe—the origins of which trace back to ancient Egypt and Greece. The title uncovers how Black artists transform everyday objects and critiques of race, capitalism, and white supremacy into extraordinary works of art. This transmutation is predicated on the ways in which Black people in America have persevered despite a complex history of enslavement, segregation, discrimination, and extreme violence, much of which persists today.
As a chemical science, alchemy sought to transform matter into other substances, most notably turning base metals into gold, producing elixirs to achieve eternal life. The criticality of alchemy cannot be understated as a framework to explore the nuanced and dynamic experiences of people across the African diaspora. As co-curator Rodney remarked, “In its simplest terms alchemy was a medieval project concerned with turning ‘base’ substances into ‘noble’ ones. That’s the story of Black people in America in the most distilled terms,” adding, “there is no better time to talk about the various ways that Black people have successfully alchemized a tortuous and staggering history.”
The show brings together a wellspring of critically acclaimed artists, including Mark Bradford and Sanford Biggers, in conversation with emerging talents such as Nigerian-born sculptor Layo Bright and Ghanaian artist Yaw Owusu. These four artists have forged practices that utilize abstraction and found objects, unearthing questions of identity, race, and inequality through materiality. Owusu’s use of the Ghanian pesewa coins and the American penny—the costliest American coin to produce, despite possessing the least nominal value—speaks to issues of wealth and inequality. Bright’s inclusion of the “Ghana Must Go Bag,” popularized in Nigeria when roughly one million Ghanaian migrants were deported by President Shehu Shagari’s executive order in January 1983, speaks to issues of displacement and migration. Biggers’s employment of textiles and patchwork fabrics traces the legacy of Gee’s Bend quilters in Boykin, Alabama. Meanwhile, Bradford’s large-scale mixed media work immediately recalls weathered landscapes and deconstructed maps as sites for exploration.
The Alchemists soars in its ability to showcase the scale of Black artistic production through a multitude of mediums. The exhibition offers an engaging discourse regarding Black lived experiences in the U.S. and globally regarding racism, discrimination, and inequality. “With this show, we wanted to engage audiences so deeply, that the meanings evoked here would reverberate in and through them longer than any of us might suspect,” Rodney remarked. Johnson added that, “My primary area of interest is the ability of artists to transmute ordinary materials into extraordinary forms, thereby creating innovative modes of expression that authentically convey their own, or their respective cultures’, narratives.” The variety of works on view creates the impression that artists of the African diaspora display a keen sense of resourcefulness into transforming difficult realities and everyday banal objects into dynamic works of art. Considering the exhibition showcases the breadth of talent within the diverse artistic practices of each artist, perhaps we are compelled to consider the ways in which Black artists have continued to survive and thrive despite systems of oppression.
The Alchemists was on view at Johnson Lowe Gallery in Atlanta from March 3 through April 29, 2023.