In the Third Ward, colossal, unposed portraits of domestic black royalty have been wheat-pasted. They tower like homemade billboards, making one crane one’s neck to drink in the emotionally rousing combination of street and portrait photography.
Artist Colby Deal is the sage artist behind initiating questions of these unknown identities, while simultaneously depicting familiar scenes from his own life.
An obvious time period is suspended with these portraits in such a way that one cannot determine how recent the photographs are. And it is through a play on manipulation of scale that these images of black community members are revitalizing the Third Ward urban art setting — an application of a fine art lacquer to an already dense layer of cultural histories and community preservation.
The presented pictures ask the obvious from the setting and subject, but they also beg the question of why, in the middle of an increasingly gentrified community, are there actively defiant photo-bombings of public art. Are they a statue of defiance? An activist of silent protest? Why are these people in traditional portraiture staring back at you from their home settings, and what are they asking you?
Currently participating in a two-year residency, along with 17 other artists, at RedLine Gallery, Deal intends to continue portrait photography through urban substrate for wheat-paste bombing and through dabbling in sculptural work. His correlation with photography and sculpture is by thinking of a way to illustrate ideas and concepts outside of photos and a frame.
Deal makes his wheat-pasting portraits site specific, often utilizing abandoned or forgotten wall space in the Third Ward to hide his “easter eggs,” as he calls them.
I was able to speak with the artist over the phone recently to ask him a series of questions about his work.
Byline Houston: Colby, what subjects do you hope your portraits implore? If you’re forcing a position for a portrait, what do you hope the audience wants to ask? And if each portrait is to ask a story — who is telling the story?
Colby Deal: I am asking the audience to take a look at their own story and to analyze what they’ve been doing in their lives — people of all ages — because so often the media perpetrates a negative conception and mentality of what people of color, especially of how lower income areas live life like. Its functional because [I am] a person of color applying my abilities to bring awareness to what’s happening to the people and families of these areas and to inform them on how they do have a place in the art world, as well as the power of change they behold.
Bringing this awareness is building a bridge out of a cycle provided for us to fail a good percentage of the time. When a person like them [person of color] from the same area is doing something “different” instead of the detrimental routine, one may begin to think I can be an artist or give an alternative narrative. You don’t have to play sports to get out of that routine either. I’m attempting to do two things at once — use my power as an artist to preserve cultural narrative and seek and perpetuate a more practical image of us as a responsibility.
Byline Houston: Can you elaborate about why it is important to de-stigmatize low-income populations with artwork?
Deal: The reason I’m doing this is because I feel our people — African American, Brown people in low-income areas — are looked at negatively a lot of times. I Feel like it’s our responsibility, and mine as an African-American artist, to refine the imagery we make available to be shown through the media and in the art world as well… The younger generations have to take accountability for the images of their households, and it begins with the us.
Byline Houston: Will you continue to pursue portraits regarding social setting and cultural constructs in the future? What’s next?
Deal: This is always going to happen for me, and I will continue to do work in similar areas all over. The truest and most natural form for me to ask these questions is through the eyes of these people that inhabit these places and my immersion into them both. It’s actually transcending into my latest interest in merging sculpture and portraits. Now what I’m doing is kind of going backwards or flip-flopping. Now I collect wood, found material people don’t use, and bring back to studio. I find these sculpted frameworks to be effective, because after I build a characteristic piece using antique or traditional household materials, it creates dialogue and questions for the viewer, which in turn gives it a personality — just as I feel my photographs possess. I’m wanting a more effective way to show that personality. It makes a project more fulfilling. You might being seeing a bit more public work as well.
(In his past life, Deal was a woodworker, which would explain the stripped but decadently ornate frames he builds to contain and elevate his blown up photos, a self-taught trade.)
Byline Houston: Wheat-pasting is an urban technique to plaster large-scale works and territory by the artist. It’s an economical process — simply water and flour. Where did this technique come from? Why not have a digital medium or an exhibition?
Deal: I like to shoot film but not digital right now. I am going to get another digital camera for speed and side jobs, but for my work it’s film for archival issues. And because of the process and consideration, it takes to build a project.
Byline Houston: Why is your hashtag on social media #cantkillusall?
Deal: Because I feel like that the way I’m seeing it and portraying it — us as a people providing us a different path, people that are brutalized for living a lifestyle. Another thing I mean by that is that there are educated POC and level-headed people that know their rights and powerful history and won’t as much as give police an opportunity to shoot or beat them down like a dog in the streets or to be ran over by the government, which is why I spoke about [Building Bridges] earlier, as a certain demographic is clearly being targeted and it’s nothing new. #theycantkillus
Byline Houston: How did you begin working with PRH?
Deal: I was nominated for the residency in 2017 by my professor David Politzer and another good friend and artist, Gabriel Martinez, who runs Alabama Song Gallery in third ward. They appreciated the type of work I was doing and thought it would be a great fit for what Project Row Houses mission is.
Byline Houston: Third ward is seeing gentrification. Would you say that Project Row House is offering serious pushback as a community?
Deal: Oh yes, Project Row Houses is definitely one of the heads of the pushback to gentrification. Again, referring back to bringing awareness to whats going on and what a person is capable of, PRH does that by involving the community in artist events and meetings the operate on the issue. This may include local markets to increase notoriety and revenue from within or buying property and building affordable housing for the people of the community. They’re working with the change very well, because we all know it’s inevitable, but it’s about how you use that change to your advantage and work with it. [What] pisses me off about gentrification is that [they] made these so-called “slums” for us, to keep us separate, but when it became known, or the prosperity that arose from these areas, that they could capitalize on, they infiltrated. There’s [serious] benign neglect happening all over.
The powers that be and the money holders allow these places to go to rubbish in order to drop in and take it all for profit, destroying families in the process. How much money do you need? How much land are you going to take?
While Deal is self-taught, photography is a family practice. His father also took similar styled portraits, one of which being of his mother, pasted up on the side of the El Dorado Ballroom. Remnants of portrait photography were passed down by going through portrait photography and his father’s photo albums where Deal found natural tendencies to want to photograph the same types of people.
Deal says he is looking to outdistance himself from his traditional route of black portraiture and that he yearns to manufacture images that deal with other communities as well.