On your site, you talk about your work as “pursuing ways to deconstruct and destroy a White Supremacist Capitalist patriarchy that has rendered you invisible.” Which a lot of your work explores in an interestingly internal way — with your Here, a Vibration installation, you talk about the relationship between the brain and gut in particular. Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship? And about the role of internalization in seemingly outward projects of resistance?
I guess I think of outside forces as having a very internalized effect. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy get so deep inside you that you don't realize that you were being a part of them. There’s the saying “trust your gut.” But when I was trying to put my mind back together after figuring out some of these things, I realized that I didn't know how to trust my gut. So, for me, it was, Well, how do I learn how to trust my gut again? Maybe there's this thing that's blocking the communication between my gut and my brain.
Is that related at all to your work that deals with cosmetics advertising?
Yeah. They’re separate projects in that Nature’s Intent is a collaborative project, but they're very much tied to each other in that so much marketing towards women, especially Black women, is about fixing yourself, being acceptable, and being the right kind of presentable. The history of that is so problematic because so much of what is being told to a person about who they should be is racist and male-oriented. It can't be healthy for a person to trust someone else, who literally has no idea what it's like to be in their body, to tell them what’s appropriate for them.
Nature's Intent, of course, happened first. Before that point, I didn't have access to another Black woman artist that was going through the same things that I was going through, so there were a lot of conversations that we could work out together. And then that helped build a foundation for the Here, a Vibration work.
Can you talk about the role of humor in your practice? Because I think it shouldn’t go unmentioned that projects like Nature’s Intent are really funny.
That’s kind of how I operate in general. It’s not like I'm in the studio like, Okay, I'm gonna make this part funny. I make a lot of jokes, I find the humor in very sad things, and I love to be able to find the very tender point of, This is so sad I have to laugh, otherwise I’ll break. But also making it a problem to laugh — making you decide whether or not this is something you can laugh at.
Are those questions that you try to explicitly surface? How do you think about framing that for the viewer?
That's a really hard one for me because, at the very base of it, I make the work for myself. It's all about me being able to laugh and learn as I'm laughing. But once it gets bigger than me, I can't really control who the audience is anymore, and that laughter is something I feel a little more protective over. So I make sure that there's this point at which people have to decide for themselves if they’re laughing because they relate or because they don’t relate.
I guess what I want is for people to be laughing because they see something in it. “Oh, I don't do that exact thing, but I have something like that.” Sad, but weird, funny, and internal.
Yeah, and in your Protective Style piece — sorry that I'm just mining your site for quotes — you talk about exploring “the juxtaposition of public and private self,” which feels very much connected with we’ve just been talking about. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about that juxtaposition?
Personally, I struggle with speaking for a broader group of people. I am so tied to my personal experience, but at the same time I know that I have experienced a private self that is public, or a private self that feels like it's always on view. Things that I do on a regular daily basis that are mundane to me, but are not mundane to someone else, come up for comment, and that pulls my private self into the public.
With that piece, it was kind of thrusting back. Like, “Fine, you want to know the private self? Do you want to know the labor that happens when I braid my hair? You want to know all this behind the magic of me?” But by the same token, in the performance I didn't engage with anybody. So it became this private moment made public that then pushed the public back away.
I'm always trying to find a place of re-asserting my power, or trying to empower myself to determine my own boundaries with people. I don't always feel like I have privacy in the ways that I've seen other people be able to have access to privacy. So there's a feeling of needing to push back at some of this stuff.
Something you also talk about in your work is the commodification of resistance. Like, your In which the artist attempts features paper bags with the word “resist” printed on them. How does that fit in?'
I guess I'm already aware of all the different ways that I'm a commodity just being myself. It becomes a little pornographic in a way, that even my identity is this thing that’s like, “Oh, yeah, show us your Black anger.” No matter what I do, it’s going to be commodified. If I say, “Fuck you,” they’ll be like, “Yeah, fuck me! Right!” And that's not what I want. I want a conversation, I want there to be something to get to the bottom of.
And it seems like, instead, in order to defuse a resistance it has to be absorbed into the capitalist idea. Like, now there are a million Black Lives Matter t-shirts, and there are t-shirts that say “resist.” Those aren’t shirts that are for a cause — those are just shirts that you can find at Urban Outfitters, and that's not going anywhere but some rich man's bank account. So it's seeing this really fiery thing be flattened by the idea that you can look like you stand for something without actually doing it.
And then, being an artist, someone who produces things, I can also make things that are very tantalizing and make you want them. But that comes with a big responsibility, too. Like, even in that performance, people wanted the bag. That was the best part: “I want that bag, but I know not supposed to want that bag.” That's something that I'm struggling with too. I guess I want to see if anybody else is struggling like I'm struggling with some of these concepts of how to be in the world.
Yeah, I think those conversations about commodification are particularly relevant right now during Pride Month.
Mhm. It’s gross!
And it's hard to negotiate the line between commodification and support. Because I suppose I want a world where Spotify cares about supporting queer people —
But just in the month of June?
Yeah. How do you think about that line?
Yeah, I definitely want a world in which we're all different and everybody’s supported. But that's not what's happening. Like, I'm very happy to see this moment, and a lot of things are getting attention that haven't gotten attention before. What I'm afraid of is that it's on-trend, and trends die. I grew up with a lot of very positive Black images on TV, and I saw those go away. And now I see them coming back.
So if we're learning anything from history, we are learning that, yeah, things are cool right now, everybody's getting their attention, but at the end of the day, the money and the power is still going to the same people. And those people in two to three years are going to decide they want something else. What I’m trying to address is that we have to get deeper than the surface of, “Oh, it's great that we have this actor or this person that represents us,” and get down to the unseen people.
Yeah, it feels like a calculated thing whereby companies put on an outward face of being representative, but really it's some white dude in the back room deciding on a marketing strategy. So I think that's an important project — to push deeper than just representation itself and get to why that representation is happening now: is it something that organically arose, or was it weirdly calculated?
And I think people are waking up to that. Like, I've seen a lot more critical dialogue around Colin Kaepernick being sponsored by Nike. People are like, “wait a minute, Nike, you never cared before.”
That was a particularly weird moment. Because I remember the day it happened there were articles like, “this is so bold by Nike.”
Yeah, was this written by Nike? Have we just forgotten everything about Nike instantly?
Right. Those shoes are still made by tiny children's hands. It’s weird and it’s sticky, and most days it's super depressing. But sometimes I can make some work about it.
I want to make sure we talk about what you've been working on in Wassaic. Can you tell me about the Tithes and Offerings project you and Brandon [Donahue] have been working on?
The name comes from the church. We both grew up with a Christian background, and the tithe is this point in the service in which you give a 10th of your income. The offering is anything above and beyond that.
Even though I don't necessarily subscribe to Christianity anymore, it's something that is very culturally specific and a marker of something common between a lot of people’s experience. For us, it talks about the responsibility that we have as artists, as makers, but it also is this way for us to work through some of the commonalities in our practice. I make a lot of garments, and he does a lot of airbrushing. Those are both practices that get relegated to low art, but are highly celebrated within our culture. He's been working as an airbrush artist since he was 14, and he's always worked with people in the community, and what they see for themselves as artwork. For me, I learned how to sew from my mom and my grandma. When I was growing up, it was a marker of, “Oh, you don't have money, because you can't buy fancy clothes.” But as I've gotten older, it’s become, “Oh, you know how to make clothes, you don't have to accept these raggedy clothes that are in the stores.”
Our work makes people question where value is placed and the line between high art and low art.
What does that project entail?
That’s kind of what we're working out right now: what are our offerings?
We made a logo, and we found these t-shirts that were $1. He's gonna airbrush on them, I'm going to print on them. And we're just gonna keep going back and forth until we've composed a t-shirt. I don't know if they’ll be for sale or if they're just this thing we're working on. But that's the starting point for us.
If that’s the offering, what is the tithe?
One of the things we really want to get to is collaborating with people who don't necessarily identify themselves as artists. I guess the long game is getting to a point where, say, you have all this stuff that you're wanting to get rid of or don't know what to do with — you bring it to us, and we help you turn it into new things. That, for us, is a way of starting to get rid of this throwaway culture. But also, specifically for people who may not have access to a lot of resources, being their way of re-empowering themselves. Resisting this idea that you have to have the latest thing, and giving them a way of branding themselves. You don't have to wear Nike checks — if you learn how to make a print, you can make your own logo and you can be your own thing. I feel like that's our 10% of giving back.
Jessica Gatlin is an artist, maker, and part-time sorceress based in Nashville, TN. She received her BFA in Studio Art from Florida State University and MFA from the University of Tennessee - Knoxville. She has participated in numerous residencies and fellowships including Ox-Bow School of Art & Artist Residency (Saugatuck, MI), the Fabric Workshop and Museum (Philadelphia, PA), and the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Fine Arts (Wroclaw, PL). An interdisciplinary artist, Gatlin takes a speculative approach pursuing ways to deconstruct and destroy a White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy that has rendered her and many others invisible.
Public Art: Deep Breath, by Tithes and Offerings
2019 Summer Residency