Interview with Gordon Shadrach at United Contemporary

Interview with Gordon Shadrach (GS) by Phil Anderson (PA)

Gordon Shadrach at the Artist Project, 2020. Photo: Phil Anderson

Shadrach presents a powerful exhibition of works titled NET WORTH at United Contemporary Gallery.

The combination of oil paintings (on birch or wood) and mixed media works look at the relationship between fashion and black masculinity from both a contemporary and historical perspective. The exhibition is coupled with works by artist Gio Swaby who originally is from Nassau, Bahamas and studied at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Swaby’s delicate textile works (fabric and thread on canvas) are a wonderful match to Shadrach’s depiction of the black males in his works.

Gio Swaby, Study of Self, 2020, fabric and thread on canvas, 11” x 14” each

Shadrach portraits represent black males in general; he avoided choosing celebrities as the subjects of his works. There are references to sport such as basketball in the mixed media work Nothing But Net and boxing with the work Contend. Both are sport activities which black males are known to excel at. He uses antique frames to present his modern images in a historical context. The exhibition has a lot to say and proves Shadrach to be an accomplished artist to watch and listen to.

Gordon Shadrach, Contend, 2020, vintage cotton cloth farm sacks, vinyl boxing bag, steel chain, 49” x 15”

PA: You originally studied textile art at OCADU. What made you transition to painting as your primary medium of expression?

GS: I really started painting on a dare by my partner. He encouraged me to paint my own version of a bow tie print that I admired instead of buying it. I had some student grade paint lying around and gave it a shot. I had no intention of becoming a painter let alone a portrait painter. I really enjoyed challenging myself and pushing beyond my comfort zone in order to try to improve my skills. The more I painted, the more I realized that I could convey meaning in my work as well as develop my technical ability.

Gordon Shadrach, Vim and Vigour, 2020, oil and acrylic on birch panel, antique frame, 28” x 22”

PA: In your works you explore the connection between black masculinity and fashion. Do you thing this differs from black femininity and fashion?

GS: This question is difficult to answer since my point of view is based on my experiences and observations as a Black man. I think that there has been a fetishization of Black masculinity based on perceptions of strength and virility. This in turn has impacted the images of Black men that dominate our culture which has resulted in the perpetuation of stereotypes. In my opinion, there is a narrow standard of beauty in Western culture that has had its impact on Black women and fashion. This is particularly interesting because we now live in a time when styles that began and are popular within Black culture are being appropriated by White celebrities and design houses.

Gordon Shadrach, Crosshairs, 2019, acrylic on birch panel, antique frame, 31.5” x 23.5”

PA: Are their other artists that you known of that explore this theme?

GS: I think there are many artists that explore this theme. The concept boils down to creating art that depicts Black people the way others have been shown in Western art and culture for hundreds of years; that there is no monolithic way to be Black, and that by diversifying subjects and context in our work we show that we are all worthy of being celebrated. Artists like Jordan Casteel, Devan Shimoyama, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Toyin Ojih-Odutola and Kehinde Wiley.

Gordon Shadrach, Lucid, 2018, acrylic on wood, antique frame, 16” x 20”

PA: What were your earlier works like prior to this body of work?

GS: I explore many themes that centre on Black masculinity, but originally, my paintings were “fashion portraits” where I started to develop as an artist. Moving into more traditional portraiture, I started to paint Black men as Victorian and Edwardian dandies as a way to reinsert ourselves historically when Black men weren’t often depicted in Western art. These portraits were painted so that the sitter would have hair natural to our culture such as afros or dreadlocks in order to correct the forced assimilation of Black people to match the looks of their oppressors.

Gordon Shadrach, Steadfast, 2020, oil and acrylic on birch panel, antique frame, 12” x 14”

I did a series called Visceral which depicted my sitters in various states of emotions based on dealing with racism in everyday life. But the common thread through most of my work is the depiction of Black men in non-stereotypical portrayals.

Gordon Shadrach, Yield, 2020, oil and acrylic on wood, antique frame, 25” x 31.25”

PA: How does sport play a role in your depiction of black masculinity?

GS: This show is really my first time directly depicting sport related imagery with my work. I think that I have matured as an artist to develop concepts around sport that I could execute that wouldn’t diminish the importance of sport as a way to better one’s life and also allow reflection on how athletics can also limit how Black men are perceived. The critical question being that when one doesn’t fit that idea of what Black masculinity is supposed to be and you are part of that marginalized group, how do you find your place within that group? Another question is where did the concept of the strength of Black men come from?

Gordon Shadrach, Nothing But Net, 2020, antique frame, vintage cotton cloth farm sacks, basketball net, leather, 11 ft x 79”

PA: What have been the reaction to your exhibitions from black males?

GS: I am happy to say that in the times I was able to meet and discuss my exhibitions with Black men, the reactions were very positive. A lot of the men said that the exhibit depicted how they themselves feel; that the stereotype of athleticism and strength is one that they aren’t comfortable with and has impacted them through life. It’s challenging going through life feeling the pressure that people will expect you to perform a certain way simply because of how you look. I also heard that like myself, some played sports only because they felt pressured to in order to meet other people’s expectations. There were a lot of shared feelings and experiences.

Gordon Shadrach, Air, 2019, oil and acrylic on birch panel, antique frame, 11.25” x 14.25”

PA: How do you choose your subjects for the portraits?

GS: I try to look for a range of what “Blackness” means through skin tones and features. There is a political element to Black hair that refuses to die, so I think it is important to depict hair that isn’t typically shown in Western portraiture. Often, it’s about who I feel can express the mood of feeling that I can project. I work from photos and often will shoot friends and acquaintances spontaneously when we are out for later references.

Gordon Shadrach, Smoke or Chew, 2020, oil and acrylic on birch panel, antique frame, 31.5” x 29”

PA: How did you come up with the title Net Worth?

GS: Net Worth seemed like the appropriate title to me because the exhibit is about the value placed on the Black man in western society and nets obvious connection to sports. I’m drawn to titles that have multiple meanings. A net can be used to trap others, and the allure of success within the sports world is inescapable for some. How is one’s self-worth connected to their net worth?

Gordon Shadrach, Net Worth, 2020, oil on birch panel, antique frame, 37.5 “ x 24.5 “

PA: What message do you want the viewer to come away with from this body of work?

GS: I would like people to consider how others are valued in our community and to check their biases. My hope is that we will continue to examine current pathways to success and who can be considered successful given historic and systemic barriers that have been in place for hundreds of years. I would like viewers consider the historic context that developed this connection between strength and Black masculinity.

PA: What is in the future for your next body of work?

GS: I love the direction of Net Worth. I am thrilled that I decided to include textile pieces along with paintings in this show and I am eager to develop more textile work for my next exhibit.

Installation view of Gordon Shadrach, NET WORTH

Images are courtesy of United Contemporary.

*Exhibition information: March 5 – March 28, 2020, United Contemporary Gallery, 1444 Dupont Street, Unit 22, Toronto. The gallery is closed now due to Coronavirus. You can view the show at their website

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