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Breaking Out

A new series from celebrated Lowcountry artist Amiri Geuka Farris challenges our assumptions about identity and how it affects the way we view ourselves and others.

Story by Carolyn Males

I’m standing on Bull Street in Savannah, looking a large cow who, in turn, is looking straight at me. However, she’s not any ordinary cow but one bedecked in stripes, stars, puzzle piece-type shapes, polka dots, flowers, and vivid splashes of paint. She’s gazing out from a big mural on the side of an old building in a hip-hop landscape of squiggly lines, slashes of paint, drips, balloons, and yes, even a small trolley car.
As my eye wanders over this riot of color, it comes to rest on a scrap of an old black-and-white photograph of a storefront embedded amid the symbols and patterns. Ah, now the urban bovine makes sense.


Artist Amiri Geuka Farris has created this homage to the Starland Dairy that once stood on this spot.
A block away I step into Amiri’s studio. He greets me with a big smile as I enter his world. Like many in the Lowcountry, I’ve long associated Farris with his dreamlike paintings imbued with the Gullah history and culture at the edges of marsh and sky. Years ago I’d bought one of his smaller gems, “Sweet Grinder,” a portrait of a woman, her pastel dress and head wrap adorned with mystical Adinkra symbols, churning herbs against a background of flowers and swirls.

Today Farris’s latest work is ablaze with new passion and bold ideas. As he pulls out canvases with edge-to-edge painting and layer upon layer of brushstrokes, stenciling, bits of comic strips, and manipulated photographs, he sweeps me up in his whirlwind of energy. Yet, it’s very clear that even as he experiments, he’s in command of his subject. In one striking multi-patterned piece he entices me in with primary reds, yellows, and blues that seem to float and dance amid wedges of black and lines and drips of white. My attention soon is jolted by the multitude of eyes, like a covert surveillance squad, peering out from its dark spaces. And off to the side, taking it all in, is activist Colin Kaepernick, a bright red slash across his mouth.

Two of Farris’s more recent series challenge our assumptions about identity and how it affects the way we view ourselves and others. His Brown Bag paintings speak to the African-American experience, commenting on the hierarchy of skin color with its damaging bias. “If you’re lighter than a brown bag, or closer to it in color, then you’re considered more beautiful and more capable than if you’re darker,” he explains.

To drive home his point, he’s reclaimed those ubiquitous brown grocery bags, mounted them on  canvases and silkscreened faces on top of them. Then he’s layered those with torn or cut pieces of bags and pixelated photos, comic book-style Ben-day dots, and his trademark Adinkra patterns (West African symbols rich with parable meanings) –– all of it under- and over-laid with acrylic paint markings. What emerges are close-up portraits, their eyes haunted with untold stories.

Another set of paintings from his Colorism series speaks to Farris’s personal experience filling out government, school, and financial questionnaires that ask for his ethnicity. For those pieces, he’s enlarged images of his own face along with check boxes from those documents. He’s printed them together on long sheets of cotton rag paper and enveloped each in a stereotypical color to match whatever racial label he might arbitrarily choose to tag himself with on a particular form. So, brown for African-American, white for Caucasian, yellow for Asian and so on, thus underscoring how we place people in boxes with all the attendant prejudices we associate with them.

For all these works, Farris, a professor of foundation studies at SCAD, plays with techniques from modern art masters: Romare Bearden’s collages, Andy Warhol’s pop art portraits, Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti –– infusing them with his own style.

He builds on all this for his series-in-progress which will be on display this spring at the Jepson Center’s “Boxed In/Break Out” exhibition. For this public art installation he’s incorporating recycled pieces of cardboard and boxes, photographs of historic Savannah people and places, and more three-dimensional elements. These huge edgier portraits promise to be more even more dynamic, calling out from the art museum’s Barnard Street windows, grabbing the attention of passersby with a visual “Hey! Stop and Look!”

And given Farris’s compelling graphic storytelling, how can we not?