New York-based artist Raque Ford works across sculpture, painting, film and publication. Through speculative fiction, Ford creates a shared affective and tangible space for the performance of identity. Part pop culture fan-fic, part meditative reflections on self, Ford’s practice is not a form or extension of escapism, but rather a determined quest for lucidity in the heavily contested social text. I caught up with Raque to talk more about her recent solo show, ‘Yours Truly, Georgia Brown,’ her practice, and why selling your soul to the devil may not necessarily be a terrible idea:
What were you investigating with your recent solo exhibition at the International Studio and Curatorial Program, Brooklyn?
For me, I wanted to continue an exploration of using a celebrity or someone else’s voice or words as my own. Make them into my own character. I think this project started as a desire to write a story around a depressed, black female character. Somehow this took me to a film I saw a while ago with my father called Cabin in the Sky. He’s really into musicals and it was one of those moments where he was like: this is important in black culture, watch it.
Why Cabin in the Sky, specifically?
At the time, I was annoyed that Lena Horne’s character, Georgia Brown, was portrayed as this flat female character: evil for no reason and beautiful. I wanted to write a story coming from her point of view and why she would be this woman of many vices, and to me it was because she obviously sold her soul. Around that time, I watched this recent horror film The Witch and, sorry, spoiler alert, she ends up signing her name in the devil book. She has no choice because everyone dies and she’s alone in the woods in 17th century New England. I think also I honestly always liked the idea that Robert Johnson sold his soul to be a better guitar player and when I was younger I wanted to sell my soul to sing better. That obviously never happened.
‘In the ocean, in da club, and in my dreams,’ 2016
In your zine ‘Dear Devil,’ Georgia Brown maintains a tense yet melancholic relationship with the Devil; Georgia openly shares her loneliness and yearning to connect with the devil in each page. What is the nature of their relationship and how does this figure specifically into the works on view?
I think Georgia Brown’s relationship with the Devil is this one of “if you just fix everything in my life and fulfill all my desires it will get rid of this loneliness or the sadness”. I think the zine is about someone who’s never satisfied and always wants to be happy. and realizing selling your soul doesn’t get rid of that; but, maybe that can be an interesting place to be. I’m still trying to figure it out. I feel like working on this piece it started somewhere and end in this other place that I need to figure out.
Many of your pieces function as – for lack of a better term- images, yet can also be described as sculptures. Have you always considered this conflation of elements central to your practice?
Yes. I think I have an apprehension to calling it just painting or just sculpture because I think I went to art school for too long. I also like having the option to work in different mediums and being able to combine them. I know people like to view things and want to feel comfortable by being able to identify what it is, like Is this a painting? Or a sculpture? I don’t really care what you call it.
‘In the ocean, in da club, and in my dreams,’ 2016 (detail)
What is your relationship with text? Have you always been a writer?
I’ve never been much of a writer. I never was able to keep a diary. I remember getting caught using a buffy plot line in an english paper and being called after class about plagiarism. I was also asked if I was dyslexic. I like that I started writing by using other people’s words and adopting for my own. I enjoyed when I did the Sculpture Center piece using different rihanna songs and trying to weave them into a dialogue between to characters.
In that Sculpture Center exhibition, In Practice: Fantasy Can Invent Nothing New, the piece you’re referring to is the polyptych plexiglass panel, which is based on a fictional erotic story that you wrote between Rihanna and a character based on you called beyonce. How did this story come about?
It started off really liking this clip from Real HouseWives of Atlanta. In the scene, all the women are hanging out, and one of them starts saying how everyone thinks she looks like beyonce and that she has to tell people all the time that she isn’t.’ It cuts to the other woman making some serious face and saying she looks nothing like Beyonce. I think I was drawn to it because it’s hilarious, but also just how sincerely she believed it and how happy it made her. So I started to write about this character that was so pleased to be beyonce that she changed her name. And that she felt power in being this other. Then my friend wanted me to write an erotic novel about a dream I had of Rihanna. So I tried to put the stories together but became more interested in telling a story of two close female friends, and how complicated those relationships can get. I wanted the two characters to share this relationship to a celebrity, so they are both named after popstars. Then I just based most of the story on my own friendships.
‘Yours Truly, Georgia Brown,’ Installation view, ’2016
Do you find it easier to work within the parameters of narrative?
Yes and no. It’s a newer thing for me and I enjoy it. The hard part is coming up with the narrative
A few of the pieces are linked together by zip ties. You mentioned this was an attempt to make them interchangeable. Can you talk more on that?
Before this show, I was making large 4’x9’ pieces or large polyptych pieces. I wanted to make a piece that could both be shown on it’s own or to make a larger piece. So for the ISCP show, the red acrylic was made to be one large piece attached by zip ties. In the future, I hope to be able to join either two or three together and show them in different ways.
How important of a factor does color play when creating a piece?
For the show at ISCP, I wanted to be very obvious and use red acrylic and have it be this shiny and reflective material to really attract people on the surface level. In the past I’ve used found plexiglass that I’m either given or I buy off craigslist, so that usually dictates the color of the piece. I’m definitely attracted to certain colors. At the time when I made the yellow pieces I got really into wearing bright yellow all summer.
‘God bless the child,’ 2016
I was browsing through your vimeo page and was quite surprised to discover you worked in film and video.
I’ve always been interested in film and video. When I was in undergrad and grad I tried to make video using myself, but I was constantly getting frustrated. Using your image in your work is a difficult thing, and I feel like my work can be really personal. With video/film, at least there’s a layer between me and the work. It was really hard for me to watch myself. I like writing better, because it still feels really personal and about me but one step removed. I like using these characters because I can see myself in them, but also feel like I have a distance.
By distance do you mean a space where you authentically feel like yourself?
Yes. I don’t want the work to just be about me. I really want it to be relatable so it’s nice to have the space where it’s not all just me, and I have room to explore.
Do you continue to make moving images?
I’ve made video since those without myself in it and collaboratively with other artist. I actually recently had an idea for a video with myself in it, but who know’s if i’ll make it. I feel like, since making those videos, I have instagram and a ton of selfies so maybe I’m okay again with seeing my image.
Was there previously an issue with seeing your image on screen?
Yeah, just for me. I just get embarrassed, and I’m shy.
‘Dear Devil,’ Newsprint Book, 2016
Your father was a music producer and, for the most part, pop has been a consistent point of reference for you. Would you say the idea of the pop star, perhaps more specifically, the notion of ‘image-making’ and identity within the media landscape has shaped how you navigate your career?
I think about it. But I don’t really use it to shape my own career. I’m not on social media like how Beyonce is. She is very crafted and it’s amazing. She seems so personable and you know everything about her but you really don’t.
Is it ever important for you to develop an idiosyncratic visual language?
Yes, but I also have this fear that I’d work with the same material for a long time. I have to keep evolving. I don’t want people to be like, ‘Raque only makes this.’ Sometimes when I’ve made a lot of work, I take a step back and try to think of how can I push this more.
Did you always want to be an artist in this sense or did you have other ambitions?
I guess so. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I was younger. I knew I loved clothing and beautiful things so maybe in a sense that’s a form of wanting to be an artist.
Describe a typical day in your studio? How do you work through ideas?
My friend one time described me as not one of those artist that goes to the studio and works on a piece every day; that my art practice is more about me running around doing errands. I think that’s very true.
‘Dear Devil, I remember when we first met,’ 2016
How would you describe your Southern upbringing? Did this experience have any impact on your art?
I’ve always hated the South and felt very isolated and kind of an outsider- with only two friends growing up. I was always determined to leave and move back to New York, where my father lived. My mother who is very southern, and from Arkansas, also pushed me to get out; partly because she grew up in a very segregated town and dealt with a lot of racism. Also, she saw New York as having more culture. She really hated that we had to move back to the South. I think how my Mother dealt with the south really affects me and my work, but that’s a very long complicated story that I’m still trying to figure out. But I know it’s not fair to hate on it. It’s very beautiful and it has tons of history especially my own familiar history.
I get the feeling you think she sold her soul in a way.
No. I feel like she is way more in control than the devil, and wouldn’t need to. Lol.
You’re exhibiting a booth proposal with 321 Gallery in December for NADA Art Fair. What direction are you taking with this booth.
I want to show the mirrored work. What’s better for an art fair? Something very shiny, reflective, where you can see yourself. It’s also about selling your soul to the devil.
‘Dear Devil, I sold my soul to you because not much makes sense, so why not,’ 2016 (detail)
By Mark Pieterson