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Bria Sterling-Wilson’s Visual Flips and Remixes

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Jazz and collage are two seemingly unrelated things that I know are absolutely related. I listen to Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” whenever I need a little help pushing through writer’s block. With the disorienting amount of racism and the ugly innards of white supremacy fully on view for the world to see last week, I struggled to focus. But listening to Davis on repeat seems to unlock some kind of cheat code that allows me to move past anxiety and write through it.

Romare Bearden’s collages are like remarks of visual poetry and tactile personifications of jazz notes on paper. In “The Genius of Romare Bearden,” Elizabeth Alexander writes: “Collage, in both the flat medium as well as more abstractly in book form and as a metaphor for the creative process, is a continual cutting, pasting, and quoting of received information, much like jazz music, like the contemporary tradition of rapping, and indeed like the process of reclaiming African-American history (or of any historiography).”

Collage can imply a flat surface, like the twelve paper pieces Bria Sterling-Wilson created for her solo show at Full Circle Gallery, Issue No. 1. It can also refer to various processes of creative alchemy that have been passed down through generations of Black families. Our ancestors made quilts from pieces of discarded materials, they composed songs without formal training that birthed entire genres or creative musical expression, and from discarded scraps of food they created sustenance. 

Bria Sterling-Wilson, Exchange Place, 2020, Archival pigment print, 20 x 24 inches
Bria Sterling-Wilson, Royalty, 2020, Archival Pigment Print
Collage, like jazz and soul food, is an active reconfiguration of seemingly disparate parts into a unified whole.
Teri Henderson

Our lives are collages of identities, preferences, fears, things that make us feel brave, people we love, former lovers, and enemies. We exist as amalgamations of those experiences. Collage, like jazz and soul food, is an active reconfiguration of seemingly disparate parts into a unified whole. Black women are masters of this reconfiguring, of being multidimensional and multifaceted. Using collage as a medium and a metaphor, Sterling-Wilson explores the histories of Black men and women in this country, creating new contexts and narratives. Subverting mandated or established pasts, she proclaims new realities for the inhabitants of her collaged universe—and for herself.

Sterling-Wilson, also known as B. Sterling, is from Baltimore County, and she is working on her undergraduate degree in photography and digital arts at Towson University. She identifies as both a collage artist and a photographer, admitting this distinction is in flux. Her interest in collage started a few years ago with an assignment from a photography class. That’s when she realized that she “wanted to incorporate something different” in her work. The materials she employs are not limited to paper, using fabric as well as magazines and newspapers to reconfigure these visual statements. 

There is an inherent and subconscious element behind the creation of collaged works. Some invisible force, perhaps divine, perhaps just deeply within our humanity, allows artists to create from a place that generates work when we are in flow. “I’m recontextualizing all of those found objects consciously,” Sterling-Wilson says about her process. “But also I feel like there’s a subconscious element to my work as well, that comes into play to express the Black experience and Black culture.” While some believe that there has to be a “why,” a reason or impulse that drives creation, Wilson remarks, “Why can’t we subconsciously or intuitively move the pieces around? I definitely think my intuition takes hold a lot for the work that I create.”

The pieces in her show at Full Circle are slightly larger prints of her analog collages, another riff on the original. They’re samples of her master track. Sterling-Wilson’s affinity for collage is related to her appreciation for the multifaceted experience of Blackness. “I like collage because it’s about layering,” she says. “I feel like Black culture is a layered culture. There’s so much to us, and it’s not just one-dimensional. And I feel like that’s why there are so many Black collage artists coming out.” 

Bria Sterling-Wilson, Bedroom, 2020, Archival pigment print
Bria Sterling-Wilson, The Creation of Brotherhood, 2020, Archival pigment print

Sterling-Wilson sources her collage materials from magazines from bookstores like Barnes & Noble and newspapers from 7-Eleven. When collecting materials, her intuitive nature guides her as she grabs the magazines “just to take them in and see what I can get out of them,” she says, leaving much of it up to chance. “I don’t really have time to look through them right then and there. So I just get it and hope that I can piece something together.” 

Sterling-Wilson was introduced to collage through the work of Pablo Picasso. She then began researching the Dada movement and fell in love with the work of Hannah Hoch. Romare Bearden’s ability to create a depth of space in his compositions inspires her; James Gallagher, Lorna Simpson, and Martha Rosler also inform her practice. But her style is totally hers, even as it lifts elements from these greats. With each layer of paper applied with glue, she is paying homage, giving respect, and continuing in their individual legacies. 

She began experimenting with collage nearly three years ago, so she was surprised that her collage work got her a show. Last year, Sterling-Wilson was preparing for the Trawick Prize show in Bethesda, MD (she received the Young Artist Award) and used Full Circle Fine Art Services to get her analog pieces digitized. The Full Circle staff kept seeing her come in, and then the gallery’s curator Liz Faust and owner Brian P. Miller asked her if she would be interested in a solo exhibition. “I just thought I was just kinda messing around at first when I first started,” she says. “There was no game plan for making a series out of those works. I kind of just did it and then I kept going with it and that’s how I started coming up with my pieces for the Full Circle show.” 

Documentation of Bria Sterling-Wilson: Issue No. 1 at Full Circle Gallery (photo by Vivian Doering)
Bria Sterling-Wilson, What Do You Have to Lose?, Archival pigment print, 2020, 24 x 17.5 inches
Bria Sterling-Wilson, detail from You're Pretty For A Black Girl, 2020, Archival Digital Print

The title of the show, Issue No.1, is a reference to the use of fashion magazines as both source material and creative influence. Many of the works recreate common advertising themes, fashion editorial elements, and commercial logos and iconography. A Gucci logo here, a blonde wig there, the pieces are made up of deconstructed elements and then remade into new scenes. They also reference elements of Black art history and cultural signifiers, afros, gold frames, and the deconstruction of the American flag. Sterling-Wilson reassembles those seemingly disjointed material objects into unified wholes that are Black and relevant, holding space and agency on the white walls of Full Circle. The show does not at first seem overtly political, but being a Black artist in this Black city means that those themes and the subject of race resound through her work. 

Powerfully, Sterling-Wilson centers her own experience as a Black woman in her practice. She also explores “the Black experience in general, Black culture, racism, police brutality, oppression, and stereotypes.” Another theme is identity and Black womanhood, such as in the piece “Black Woman Eating Chicken” (2020). When I originally viewed the piece online, and then again in the gallery, I immediately thought Carrie Mae Weems’ “Black Woman With Chicken” (1987) might have been a reference. In Weems’ piece, a Black woman, clad in a sweater with her hair braided, sits with her elbows resting on the table, one hand gripping a fried chicken drumstick while the other partially obscures the bottom of her face. The photograph rests on top of black block letters reading “BLACK WOMAN WITH CHICKEN.” Weems’ subject looks forward, deep in rumination. 

 

L: Carrie Mae Weems, Black Woman With Chicken, 1987 and R: Bria Sterling-Wilson, Black Woman Eating Chicken, 2020

Sterling-Wilson’s piece depicts a Black woman with an afro, a beautiful angular face, fully glossed and slightly parted lips, and large hoop earrings flanking her crown of curls. This subject also gazes directly at the viewer, while from the right side, outside of the frame and outside of her dining room, a Black arm with a red sleeve places a piece of fried chicken in front of her. Sterling-Wilson’s piece—in its color, decoration, and depiction—is different from Weems’ but they both center Black women in domestic spaces, and with the use of fried chicken (which has its own fraught racialized messages), they both interrogate stereotypes, roles, and subjectivity. 

At Full Circle, “Black Woman Eating Chicken” hangs next to “I Want You,” in which a Black woman’s body is on display and becomes an object. Her head is replaced with the hand of a white figure, while several other white hands and a white woman invade her space. This piece continues a conversation started in “Black Woman Eating Chicken” and also raises questions about the ownership of Black women’s bodies.

Documentation of Bria Sterling-Wilson: Issue No. 1 at Full Circle Gallery (photo by Vivian Doering)

It also alludes to the role that white women have held in maintaining white supremacy. Hands of white actors crowd around the central figure, policing her body and preventing her movement. A white woman dressed in white has her hand on the Black body’s ribcage, keeping her in suspended animation. Both the headless torso and the clothed white figure appear feminine, but they are not in equal standing. With her hand in this position, the white figure has fixed the central figure as the subaltern, while two black hands reach up from the bottom of the frame, attempting to rescue her. 

The titles from the pieces carry heavy and familiar meanings that trigger emotional responses when read aloud: “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” “T.H.U.G.,” “Pretty For a Black Girl.” “Line Up” was the most startling and compelling one for me. The piece depicts three Black male figures—but here they are torsos, with their heads not visible, their chests bare, all three of them wearing dark, starched blue jeans. Framed by a wallpaper of Gucci shoes, the title “Line Up” can either echo mundanity and refer to them getting their haircut in the refuge and joy of a Black barbershop, or it can signal isolation and death, perhaps referring to the three men being forced to participate in a prison line-up photo. The viewer does not know. And this dual possibility is a painful truth for Black men in this country. 

In other moments throughout the show, Sterling-Wilson explores hair. “I think, in the Black community, hair is a very big element for us,” she says. “There’s a lot of beauty standards that I think are societal standards that we think we’re supposed to go by. That goes hand in hand with stereotypes.” I felt a sort of grim affinity with the title “Pretty For a Black Girl,” because I heard those words echoed to me during my childhood. The collaged pieces compose the subject, a Black woman with dark skin and a blonde wig, her left sleeve hot pink, her legs in fishnets, her cleavage on display, while her right arm tugs down on her dress, bright nails like claws. Her expression seems solemn and seeking. Does she want validation? Or compassion? Or does she stand alternatively defying and bucking the white eurocentric beauty standards that are unfairly promoted through visual culture and advertising? 

 

Documentation of Bria Sterling-Wilson: Issue No. 1 at Full Circle Gallery (photo by Vivian Doering)
The symbology is subtle, and dark themes confront instances of brightness and lightness.
Teri Henderson

Black unity is another important theme in Sterling-Wilson’s work. Black artists, she says, are often expected to talk about injustice, while joy can get pushed aside. “I feel like as Black artists, it’s kind of our responsibility to uphold how we’re represented because it was tarnished so much in history. I think as artists, we’re kind of meant to bring that together and show how we’re truly supposed to be represented as Black people.” These moments of self-representation, joy, and unity feel important and tender throughout Issue No. 1

The symbology is subtle, and dark themes confront instances of brightness and lightness. In “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” Black hands are raised up to the sky, and initially the viewer is unable to tell if they’re raised in jubilation and praise or in fear and surrender, in danger of an imminent threat. The graveness of the piece reaches you when you learn the title. Black hands penetrate the top of the frame, the subject’s face is obscured by his modern clothing, and behind him an American flag waves in the wind.

Behind him, a black and white group of figures in antiquated clothing anchor the bottom of the frame, in contrast with the main character’s modern dress. Finally, white hands in black leather gloves reach down and seize him, seemingly pulling his body through the frame. He is clad in grey sweatpants, another symbol loaded with stereotypes and racism in American culture. I see those leather-gloved hands as belonging to a police officer who carried him to his death. For a moment the hands of the officer and the body of the figure are inseparable, which brings to mind the lack of agency involved in the perpetuation of white supremacy by the police.

In “What Do You Have To Lose?” two young people embrace, one subject’s braided head resting gently upon her companion’s shoulder. The artist has superimposed them atop a fragment of an American flag, one figure’s back against a brick wall. Their bodies imbue the symbol of colonization and white supremacy with a tenderness that it does not deserve. 

Sterling-Wilson says that after the show’s curators reviewed the work that she submitted for the show, they asked her if she could make any additional pieces, and for two weeks, “I literally was in my house, just cranking out work. I was surprised at myself. I didn’t know that I could produce work that quickly.” The ability for her to produce several works so quickly that look so finished and that complement the rest of her work in the show is evidence of her skill, intention, and dedication to her craft. Like Miles Davis and like Romare Bearden, Sterling-Wilson is a creative composer, and she generated a stellar show through manifestation, hard work, and intuition. That this is Sterling-Wilson’s first show is unapparent—an exciting testament to her mastery of visual flips and remixes.

 

Bria Sterling-Wilson, Line Up, Archival pigment print, 2020, 24 x 21.5 inches
Bria Sterling-Wilson, Free Roaming, Archival pigment print, 2020, 24 x 24 inches

*****

Bria Sterling-Wilson’s Issue No. 1 can be viewed in person at Full Circle Gallery until January 30; it is also viewable online. On January 16, the gallery is hosting an artist talk with Full Circle director Brian P. Miller, curator Ann Shafer, and artist Bria Sterling-Wilson.

Images courtesy of the artist and Full Circle Gallery. Installation photos of Issue No. 1 by Vivian Marie Doering.

Header image: Bria Sterling-Wilson, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Archival pigment print, 2020, 24 x 24 inches.

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