Jeffrey Gibson Details His Beaded Painting on Art in America’s Latest Cover

Jeffrey Gibson, whose beaded painting Born to Be Alive (2023) appears on the cover of Art in America’s Summer 2024 “Icons” issue, is the subject of a profile in the magazine. From his studio in Hudson, New York, Gibson told A.i.A. the backstory of the cover image, a detail of a larger work shown here in full.

As told to A.i.A. I was listening to music hunting for words to use in my work and came across this disco song, “Born to Be Alive,” by Patrick Hernandez from 1978. As a mix of different kinds of musics—and a place for LGBTQIA2S+ histories—disco was so divisive at the time. People were burning disco records with the same kind of agenda behind books being banned now. The lyrics to this song are explicitly about not only demanding to be able to be alive but also total self-affirmation that says, “I am supposed to exist.” This was a time when Latino, Black, and white people, primarily, were coming together to make a new sound and a new environment that allowed LGBTQIA2S+ communities to come together. This one-hit wonder that some people might dismiss was actually politically provocative in a way that things from a queer aesthetic—like kitsch or camp—are sometimes criticized or invalidated for having too much color.

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Beaded faces in my work started a while ago. I was thinking about when we look at prehistoric drawings, like petroglyphs, and how, when we see faces, we try to understand what they were drawing. Some people think they are gods, or spirits. Some think they are aliens. We don’t always entirely know what the images are. I was thinking about that and wondered, What does this offer me?

When I started making garments of my own, I was looking at ceremonial garments, and oftentimes there would be paintings of faces or different kinds of iconography on them. I started wondering, How do I create my own personal iconography, or my own personal symbolism? That’s when I realized it would be my own work. Us not knowing specifically what these faces were gave me license to invent a face that I didn’t really know.

An intensely colorful wall work featuring a beaded face in the middle of abstract patterns.
Jeffrey Gibson: Born to Be Alive, 2023.

By the time I came to Born to Be Alive, I got over thinking I had to work with any one particular kind of bead. The blue bead in the pupils of the eyes is a Czech bead. Those are freshwater pearls around the outside of the eyes. The teeth are all amethyst, and the nose is an arrowhead. And then the frame is made with crow beads from India. Everything else is glass beads: seed beads and pony beads. They all carry their own kind of indulgences.

The language that Native people have worked with has always been anything that is available to us. I can access that now from anywhere. 


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