Despite living 2,100 miles apart, Charlottesville artist Matthew P. Shelton and Trinidadian artist Nikolai M. Noel are close friends.
They met in Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program, where they studied painting and printmaking, and were interested in the influence of colonialism and its aftermath on the creation of human identity.
“We were both making work about where we came from and where we come from,” Shelton says. “Noel quoted Heraclitus, ‘Geography is destiny.’ We’re focused on how the place you come from informs the possibilities and outcomes and ways you see the world.”
Noel, who currently lives in Port of Spain, describes himself as a multiracial artist who enjoys working conceptually, mashing up drawing, printmaking, painting and sculpture as the object requires.
Shelton, who lives in Charlottesville, prefers using collage, bricolage and found objects. “I’m descended from a lot people, but [my Confederate ancestry] is one strain I’ve been in dialogue with,” he says. “Particularly because my middle name is after my great-great-great-grandfather, who, according to historical documents, was a Confederate soldier and slaveholder.”
Unlike some friends, these two dive directly into topics that would otherwise divide them, consciously examining their identities in a holistic context.
“If you’re privileged, then it’s coming at the expense of someone else,” Shelton says. “You’re a member of the oppressor group. It doesn’t matter if you’re conscious of it or not. You’re receiving the benefit.”
Their latest exhibition is “contested bodies,” now on display at Second Street Gallery. Through drawings, prints, text, sculpture, film, audio and other media, the artists examine how our present realities—especially our day-to-day observations, opportunities and feelings—are shaped by race, privilege and historical and contemporary oppression.
As an example of identity-as-experience, Noel points to his “Disaster Series.” “These are about how I receive images of police shootings of young black men in the United States when I’m in the Caribbean,” he says. “They were images on the screen, so these are screen-sized. The dread and torment and sadness of those images made me think of Goya’s ‘The Disasters of War,’ which are also around that size.”
Noel “co-opted the language of Goya’s prints” to create his black-on-black images, which he intentionally made difficult to see and photograph.
“This is part of the conversation that Matthew and I have been having for a long time on race and nationality, about what is visible and what is invisible,” says Noel. “Being a white male in America—”
“And straight and able-bodied,” Shelton adds.
“—Matthew is probably in the category of one of the most visible human beings,” Noel says. “Me, being a multi-ethnic person from the southern Caribbean, living on an island most people don’t know exists, I live in a more invisible, obscure context.”
Shelton and Noel use “contested bodies” to translate the distance between them into an experience. Some subjects are easy to grasp. Smudged illustrations of palm trees; a massive black-on-black painting of Trayvon Martin’s sweatshirt. Others are difficult—a net made of chain, padlocks and steel hangs from the ceiling. A projector streams video of blood being drawn from both men and collected in two separate jars.
Curiosity, reflection and thoughtful conversation—the tools required to decipher “contested bodies”—is one treatment for what Shelton calls the “specific historical amnesia” of the American South.
“There’s a superficial memory about slavery and Jim Crowe and Civil Rights, but there’s not a personal memory that’s being cultivated,” he says.
Noel and Shelton say the purpose of their collaboration is “to bind our fates, further forge our friendship, to ward off depression and perhaps to inoculate ourselves from the fruits of the seemingly inexorable state of apartness characteristic of life today: anxiety, dread, exploitation, alienation from self and other, shame, lost futures.”
It is not, Shelton says, about racial reconciliation. “While that’s a project that is important in the world, we’re more focused on taking the temperature of what this moment feels like.”
“We talk a lot about justice,” Noel says, “and our sense of despair comes from understanding that in order to make things right and equitable, there is the whole weight of history to deal with. “
So how do these two men communicate clearly through the weight of despair?
“It’s a willingness to listen. The person might be saying something that’s difficult to hear, but once you express a willingness to listen, the other person has a willingness to be honest,” Noel says.
“Does listening come first or does trust come first? I would say that the onus is on white people to come to the table and listen,” Shelton says. “Stepping in and caring about these things—for me, it’s optional, but it has to become not optional.”
“contested bodies” challenges viewers to practice grappling with indistinct concepts. To challenge the assumption that powerful truths can be easily consumed and to experience the worthiness of people, ideas, emotions and experiences that are, at first glance, clouded by obscurity.
“Sometimes you have a map, and sometimes you’re dropped in the middle of nowhere,” Shelton says. “It’s like where you get born. Why did I get born where I was and to whom I was? Our collaboration is just having two people have that conversation, that expression of bewilderment, together at the same time.”