Gallery Aferro, located in downtown Newark, is an artist-run, alternative arts space offering exhibitions, events, and studio residency programs. On view through April 1, 2022, are solo exhibits by Armisey Smith and Caren King Choi. Visually engaging, technically impressive, and emotionally complex, each show uniquely explores the roles and lives of American women and diasporic communities at this point in history.
“We wanted each artist to have the space to express the fullest spectrum of her thoughts and emotions,” says Emma Wilcox, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Gallery Aferro. “That is so simple that it almost shouldn't be remarkable. But even in 2022, that kind of expression of the full breadth of experience is not always afforded to anyone other than white, male cisgender artists in our society.”
Brooklyn-born Armisey Smith, who lives in Newark, is an arts administrator, educator, illustrator, and curator. Smith has a studio at Aferro and is the 2021 Recipient of the Lynn and John Kearney Fellowship for Equity.
“There is unique intimacy when we present work in the gallery that was created in the studios here in the building,” says Wilcox. “I think that makes our exhibitions different than those in spaces that are solely galleries.”
“In Time and In Tide," Smith offers powerful reflections on the causal relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism.
“In 2020, during a time of fear and anxiety, Armisey was able to preserve herself by making art, and was able to continue this work during her fellowship,” says Wilcox. “There's a lot of fury in Armisey’s show, but the work also shows resilience, humor, and all sorts of emotions.”
The show features more than 50 works, utilizing a range of media including paintings luminated with gold leaf, oil stick drawings, and large-scale masks made of tulle, zippers, and glitter. Formally trained at some of the top art universities in New York, Smith deftly uses these materials to tell stories of the strength and vulnerability of Black women.
Evonne M. Davis, curator of this exhibition, says in this interview with Smith: “Everybody knows the stereotype of the strong Black woman, but these, to me, feel like they’re almost an archetype of a woman. They all seem almost elevated to demigoddesses.”
Armisey Smith's "Watchu Saying?" alcohol ink and acrylic on paper, 44x36, 2022. Photo courtesy of Gallery Aferro.
Davis, who is Gallery Aferro’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director continues, “They’ve transcended even being on the same plane that us humans and our horrible stereotypes are.”
Smith’s Side Eye/Pink Eye series of acrylic portraits, which comprise over half of the show, depict women of color giving the side-eye, with hot, pink blood in their eyes.
“At the time, I felt drowned in the 24-hour news cycle,” says Smith. “I felt disdain for certain folks who seemed not to care about how their actions could affect other people's lives. Mostly, it was the cavalier attitude among white men that was just so enraging. I began the Side Eye/Pink Eye series to channel these difficult feelings and thoughts.”
As she worked, Smith says the meaning of these paintings seemed to change.
“The first few were all about anger and rage. Then, the series became a way of connecting to people as I reached out to women that I know and love, asking for selfies to paint,” Smith explains. “That connection was important for me, but it was also important for the women who participated. It gave everyone the opportunity to share their voices, their feelings, their thoughts about what was going on at the time.”
Installation view of Caren King Choi's Red Portraits. Photo by Rachel Fawn Alban
Caren King Choi’s “Drawn In”
Caren King Choi is a native New Jersey artist of Chinese-Taiwanese descent. After more than a decade as an arts educator and administrator, she began a new career as a full-time mom in 2018. Her solo exhibition "Drawn In" showcases two different bodies of work. Meticulously crafted from thousands of tiny stickers, Choi’s Red Portraits depict friends and family members, mostly children. Meanwhile, her playful Mom Doodles illustrate the ups and downs of parenthood.
“I decided to show these two bodies of work that might not make sense together, but are reflective of my practices, my mind, and my life,” says Choi. “I can be very minute, focused, and serious. I can also be very loose and quick, fast, and humorous.”
Close up of one of Caren King Choi's Red Portraits. Photo of artwork by Rachel Fawn Alban
The Red Portraits are immediately impressive because of Choi’s skillful artistry and become even more interesting the longer you look at them. From a distance, the texture almost resembles a soft textile, and they appear to beautiful, loving, realistic portraits of sweet children. Upon closer viewing, fragmentation is apparent and the delicate, jagged edges of each tiny square are visible. This complexity in form and materials is perhaps a metaphor for the vulnerability of her subjects as young Chinese Americans.
“In her artist statement, Caren talks about these iconic propaganda posters, which are associated with a hostile regime that basically caused her family of origin to flee China. At the same time, these formal techniques work very well for depicting the faces of people that she cares about,” remarks Wilcox. “This is almost like she's creating her own propaganda about visibility, and who is seen as having a specific identity or being the default identity. The title ‘Mount Rushmore’ offers further insight: she is talking about who is seen as American.”
“My process is slow, and each Red Portrait takes a lot of time, so I don't have that many of them,” says Choi. “Each one takes anywhere from 40-140 hours, depending on how complex it is, how big it is, how many faces there are… Even before I had kids, making each one was stop and go, because I was never able to sit in the studio for 20+ hours at a time. I would do an hour here, three hours there if I was lucky. More recently with the kids, I am lucky if I have 30 minutes to work on art.”
Choi’s clever Mom Doodles show another side of the artist’s personality and her life. Witty and hilarious, Choi seems to be able to produce these quickly – even daily. After sharing them on social media to the delight of her followers, Choi self-published two books.
“My most recent body of work is the Mom Doodles because parenting is what's going on in my head and my life. I'm making art that is important to me, and I can represent honestly where I am right now,” says Choi. “I can show people that art doesn't have to be aloof or hard to figure out. Sometimes art can just be a doodle of breast feeding.”
Gallery Aferro is located at 73 Market Street in Newark. “In Time and In Tide” and “Drawn In: Caren King Choi” exhibits are on view until April 1, 2022. Admission is to the gallery is free and open Wednesday – Saturday 12 p.m. - 6 p.m. Visitors must wear face coverings. Contact email@example.com for more info or to arrange a tour.
Hear more from the artists at Gallery Aferro’s upcoming online Artist Talk: “What To Know Me By: A Virtual Artist Talk About Influences” on Saturday, March 12 from 6 – 7:30 p.m. Join Armisey Smith and Caren King Choi for an intimate conversational space and learn about their influences. Defined expansively, influences are the past and present context, cultural expressions, traditions, and memories that we draw from, knowing, and not, to make our work. Each artist will present “10 Things You Can Know Me By.” Free and open to everyone! Register for Zoom here.
Images in header include: Caren King Choi's Mt. Rushmore (Nieces & Nephew) and mixed media painting by Armisey Smith . Photos of art work by Rachel Fawn Alban.