A tunnel full of lighted archways, reminiscent of a carnival, opens into a room of paintings. Through sensual, colorful, and playful multi media pieces, Memphis-born artist Derek Fordjour transports viewers into the complex world of childhood, examining games and sports for their cultural importance and using them as access points into the world of youth. An exhibition of his work, titled PARADE, is coming to the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum in New York in July.
Baseball players and cheerleaders in colorful outfits feature prominently in Fordjour’s paintings, as do trophies, confetti-filled celebrations, and teammates spending time off the field. In two similar paintings, Untitled (Red Team) and Rally Finale, a large crowd fills the canvases. In these paintings, bodies are depicted with different patterns: some are made of collaged newspaper, some are filled with stripes or polka-dots, and this abstract touch makes them seem like ghosts. But in most of Fordjour’s work, the crowd is not depicted; instead its presence is simply felt.
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Sports as metaphor for life is a simple enough premise, but Fordjour pushes his contemplation further. The individual’s place inside the community is complexly contemplated in pieces like Formations, a painting composed like a team photo, in which the absence of several members of the team is made obvious by shadows that stand where they ought to.
The stories of the communities outside the frames of Fordjour’s paintings are eerie and fascinating, all the more so because they are ambiguous. “At an early age, a politician told me a sports analogy that exposed societal inequalities,” Fordjour tells Creators. “Essentially, he explained that performance doesn’t matter if there are two different sets of rules for the same game.” Fordjour continues to examine these issues of inequality in his work.
While his paintings deal primarily with groups, Fordjour’s newspaper collages, which he calls “Works on Paper,” are individual portraits. Still often costumed like athletes and cheerleaders, the characters in these more intimate works offer deeper and more personal stories. In the background, leaves and newspapers frame the face, setting up an internal world for the character. They frequently look away from the viewer, often with their eyes closed, denying the viewer full access.
Fordjour’s work often borrows from his own childhood, taking images or feelings from his youth in Memphis. In an installation last year, he constructed a room meant to resemble the “Blue Room” in which his Ghanian mother would pray for her sons. His installation was filled with objects of violence and markers of home: a New York City police scanner, hundreds of sidewalk memorial flowers, a bodega style sign, and a recording of Elvis singing hymns, many by African-American composers.
Fordjour’s exhibition at Sugar Hill Children’s Museum was completed after a residency program there, during which he regularly worked with young children. Seeing their enthusiasm and creativity inspired the artist, who says the experience felt like coming “full-circle” in his own relationship to childhood. For PARADE, which opens on July 27, Fordjour created a new sculptural work, which he describes as “a Ferris Wheel that spans about six feet in diameter with working lights, a rotating motor, and about 20 original, hand-carved Ghanaian artifacts direct from Africa.”
PARADE will be shown at Sugar Hill Children’s Museum from July 27 – Jan 18. Check out Derek Fordjour’s other work on his website.
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