In a homecoming to The Bronx Museum, this exhibition is the first museum retrospective of Michael Richards’s art, which investigates racial inequity and the tension between assimilation and exclusion.
Michael Richards, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999. Resin and steel, 90 x 36 x 24 inches. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and The Michael Richards Estate.
The Bronx Museum of the Arts is pleased to announce ‘Michael Richards: Are You Down?’, the first museum retrospective of artist Michael Richards (1963-2001), bringing together his visionary sculptures, drawings, installations, and video work, which engage Blackness, flight, diaspora, spirituality, police brutality, and monuments. On view from September 8, 2023 to January 7, 2024, ‘Michael Richards: Are You Down?’ features nearly all of the work Richards made during a prolific decade of artistic production between 1990 and 2001, and takes its name from one of the last artworks the artist created. The exhibition is co-curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, and organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.
Of Jamaican and Costa Rican lineage, Richards was born in Brooklyn in 1963, raised in Kingston, and came of age between post-independence Jamaica and post-civil rights era America. Richards used the language of metaphor to investigate racial inequity and the tension between assimilation and exclusion in his art. Flight and aviation were central themes for Richards as an exploration of freedom and escape, ascendance and descent. His artwork gestures towards both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people.
Tragically, Richards passed away on September 11, 2001 while working in his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views studio on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center, Tower One. At age 38, Richards was an emerging artist whose incisive aesthetic held immense promise to make him a leading figure in contemporary art. Richards was integral to a generation of Black artists emerging in the 1990s – including Renee Cox, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kerry James Marshall, Dread Scott, and Kara Walker, among many others – whose powerful artworks confront the realities and consequences of racial injustice, and amplify the complexities of Black identity.
The Bronx Museum was a central artistic home for Richards during his lifetime. Richards participated in the Artists in the Marketplace (AIM) Fellowship at The Bronx Museum in 1994, leading to his first-ever museum exhibition; and in 1997, exhibited his work at the Museum in the two-person exhibition, Cathleen Lewis and Michael Richards: Recent Work, curated by Marysol Nieves (March 28 – June 22, 1997). As such, The Bronx Museum holds significant archives of Richards’ work, including some of his only published interviews and archival photographs, several of which will be featured in the exhibition.
The retrospective will feature several works that will be displayed in the artist’s birthplace of New York City for the first time, including the title work, Are You Down?, alongside works that have rarely been seen, such as Swing Lo’ (1996). Created during his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1996, Swing Lo’ consists of a large, rusted chariot outfitted with neon lights and one wheel. When installed, the chariot plays Jamaican reggae, dub, and dancehall music from a booming sound system.
In a 1997 interview with artist Cathleen Lewis, on the occasion of their two-person exhibition at The Bronx Museum, Richards stated, “I think history has always been important to me because if you examine the past you can also read the symptoms of what is prevalent now in terms of racial associations and the relationships of power present in our society today. History is interesting in terms of how we mythologize it, how we accept history or interpretations of history as fact, and whose interpretation it is. In many ways my history is so different from the official white versions.”
Significant points of reference for Richards include the Tuskegee Airmen – the first African American pilots in United States military history – and the complexity of their triumphs in the face of segregation. Other important influences include cultural, religious, and ritual stories from African, African American, Jamaican, and Judeo-Christian traditions, as well as Greek mythology. Richards merged worlds in his artworks, bringing together spiritual and historical references with popular culture to conflate the themes of his practice. Richards’ recurring interest was in both the everyday and the transcendent, and how bringing them into conversation with each other opens up a plurality of representation and interpretation. Centring his own experience, Richards also used his body to cast the figures for his sculptures, which often appear as pilots, saints, or both.
Inextricably connected to the moment of its making in the 1990s, Richards’s work remains timely and resonant decades after its creation.
The exhibition is on until the 7th of January, 2023. For more information, please visit The Bronx Museum.