Mapping a More Inclusive Narrative of Western History:
An examination of the recent artwork of Tylonn J. Sawyer
By Juana Williams, writer and visual arts curator
Tylonn J. Sawyer is an American figurative artist, educator, and curator living and working in Detroit. He is an activist, rooted in his community and invested in Detroit’s young people. His work explores identity, contemplative but deliberate, making his mark, “Ty was Here.” He questions what constitutes identity and then re-constitutes it, a different order, parsing apart
politics, race, history, and pop culture in the ongoing conundrum. The self-made protagonists in his deft drawings, paintings, and murals shape-shift across continents, time, generations, using masks of his ancestors and mentors like Malcolm X and Barack Obama (DNA, 2019) in overlay, mapping his own journey towards self-determination with their guidance. Often shown in multiple, Sawyer’s suited figures splice, as if a metaphor for double and triple consciousness.
For WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL.1, Sawyer takes on the visual vernacular often associated with power and oppression in Western art. The larger-than-life statuary figures in his jumbo size drawings (Strata Drawings I and II, 2019) accentuate the puffed up Euro-centric masculinity pervasive in classical sculpture and later post-Civil War Confederate monuments, bringing both into question.
In a triumphant turn, his series of drawings entitled “Grace Noir” honors Black women artists like Kara Walker, Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weams, and Detroit artist Tiff Massey, memorializing them instead for their invaluable contributions to shaping the landscape of visual culture. New “anthem” paintings like Three Graces: Aretha, 2019 change our historical visual landscape like powerful dynamite, blasting the male gaze from the mountain side once and for all with a trio of “Queen Arethas.”
Like other prominent artists of his generation, rather than waiting for racist inspired monuments to come down, Sawyer creates his own memorials with new narratives, upending racist ideology in the process.
Sawyer consistently returns to his own authentic story, one that is always searching for truth amidst half-truths, well aware that the only way to right history is to rewrite it, a mending of threads broken and left unbroken among us, a making of amends.
The title “Year of the Flood” from Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, which a virus ravages the earth and changes the way man has to survive. The arrival of the corona virus in the US and its disruption of the day to day workings of our society has overwhelmed my artistic focus and forced me to create more intuitively rather than a rigorous plan I’m accustomed to.
Culling from Western history and cultural tropes, the work in this exhibition centers on distortions in America’s social fabric. Over the last several years the traditional American image of righteous patriotism, main street, white picket fences, apple pie and Fourth of July fireworks have been replaced by overt xenophobia heralded by those highest in office. Televised lynchings of black men at the hands (or knee) of police officers, and social unrest in the midst of the increasing wealth gap are just a couple of the issues that have underpinned America’s crumbling reputation as the land of milk and honey.
Within this collective body of work I’m interested in themes of back motherhood, confident hypocrisies observed in politics, religion and the overall “social order”. I’m considering the stagnation of political progress by our two party system. I’m considering black thought leaders who’s opposing views often culminate in public intectural battle royals dividing our people and leaving us with no clear agenda on what racial progress looks like next. Additionally, within the new works I am using hip hop, whose music and culture provided the soundtrack and backdrop for the majority of my life as an additional metaphor for various aspects of praise and conflict.
Tylonn J. Sawyer
Tylonn J. Sawyer (b. 1976) is an American figurative artist, educator, & curator living and working in Detroit, Michigan. His work centers around themes of identity, both individual & collective, politics, race, history and pop culture.
His drawings and paintings have been included in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad including 55th International Venice Biennale, Italy; Texas A & M University, Texas; The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History & The Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan; Heron Arts, San Francisco; Kravets/Wehby Gallery, Rush Arts & The New York Academy of Art, New York, amongst others
In 2013, Sawyer expanded his studio practice to include large public murals and collaborative projects throughout Detroit, Michigan. Sawyer has completed public works for the Wholefoods corporation, Redbull USA, Murals in the Market International Mural Festival, Quicken Loans Corporation, Under Armor, The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and The Detroit Institute of Arts.
Tylonn is a professor of art at Oakland Community College and teaches drawing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Over the past decade he has taught various courses in drawing, life drawing, anatomy, 2-D design, all levels of painting, and figure painting at various institutions including Marygrove College and Eastern Michigan University.