Katrina Andry is a visual artist with an unexpected request.
Known for her colorful, life-sized woodblock prints and immersive multimedia wallpaper installations, the New Orleans native makes art that pulls you in by the pupils and doesn’t easily let go. So it came as a surprise when she told me calmly and without hesitation that she wants visitors to her exhibition at the Halsey to look at something else on the walls.
“If people go and only have five minutes to go to the show,” she says, “I hope they read the wall text. Yes, I hope they read.”
“Artificial American Culture Shock,” “The Unfit Mommy and Her Spawn Will Wreck Your Comfortable Suburban Existence,” and “Mammy Complex: Unfit Mommies Make for Fit Nannies” — the titles of Andry’s bright prints — are unequivocal. These are works meant to make you think, and think hard, about what’s going on inside the thick printed lines and saturated swaths of color.
“The artwork itself is really colorful. It can be provocative, but it’s also pretty; I aim to make pretty work,” says Andry. “Then people read the title and they have a lot of questions.”
Racial stereotypes have been at the center of Andry’s work since even before she earned her MFA in 2010: “When I started making this work in 2009, social justice artwork wasn’t quite a thing. Now there are a lot of people working on it and I think that is great. I used to feel like I had to use broad strokes, tell the whole story — the story of criminal justice, medicine, income inequality … It is not one thing; it is all things.”
In “Mammy Complex” a woman holding a briefcase bends to kiss a baby held in the arms of another woman. This second woman wears a bright green apron and no shoes. Her hair stands out from her head in all directions and her face is painted like the fleshy inside of a watermelon. Both women are white, and that is very much on purpose.
“I initially had black people portraying a stereotype, and people were like, ‘Oh this is so cool. You’re letting us into black culture and black life.’ And I was like, ‘Woah,'” says Andry. “Stereotypes are so ingrained in our society that you think I’m trying to teach you about black culture. That’s how far you believe in these stereotypes that are going against people of color. So I started putting white men in blackface, and then white people in watermelon face to portray the stereotypes.”
In a call back to the racist Sambo character and minstrel shows, Andry has given blackface a modern update that is jarring and emotional all the same.
“Watermelon has become this really charged fruit. It used to be bananas and now it’s watermelon,” she explains. “People have a physical reaction sometimes to seeing watermelon, especially used in that way.”
Out of the faces in Andry’s prints, unblinking eyes stare at every passerby. They will follow you around the room and sometimes after you’ve left it.
“You feel eyes on you. You look at it and try to understand what is the narrative of this work. Then reading the titles especially gives it away,” she says. “Then do some self-reflection. What is this work trying to tell me about society? I live in society, so what is this work trying to tell me about myself? And that’s for everyone, not just white men. We all live in this society.”
As an artist from another city, Andry is fiercely sensitive of not preaching to Charlestonians about their own town: “I don’t want to talk about Charleston; it’s not my place to do that.” Instead, she spent 10 days going around the city with leaders like Darron Calhoun of the Avery Institute and Jessica Boylston of Ideas into Action, trying to talk to and represent the voices of locals she listened to.
“It feels like, at least at this moment in time, that Charleston is trying to grapple with the inequities in Charleston that came to the forefront after that massacre [the shooting at Emanuel AME],” says Andry, who explains that it “felt weird as a person of color” to be walking around a city she jokingly describes as “an Antebellum Disneyland,” with so many reminders of the Civil War era and an unmissable statue of Calhoun. “I think that Charleston has been wanting discussion on what’s happening, like yes, ‘bring it on, bring it in.'”
You can’t walk away from Andry’s exhibit without catching a glimpse of yourself in it — whether you want to or not.
In the floor-to-ceiling wallpapered section you’ll literally see your own face staring back at you, reflected back from broken mirrors placed over massive photographs of Charleston’s rapidly gentrifying streetscapes.
As Andry says: “We all live in this society.” Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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