Walking through the world we are inclined to take a wide-eyed and disoriented look at the alarming realities central to the imagined one in Sedrick Chisom’s terrestrial foretelling of a future populated by ghosts and dominated by the mistakes of our forefathers. Visually startling and psychologically off-kilter, it is made possible by building a personal iconography those of us who are awake are compelled toward when making dreary projections about what the great chasms of our age might inevitably lead to. Its dark appeal lies primarily in our basest fears and bitterest social observations: Who wouldn’t want to escape into a far-off fantasy based on the grim afflictions of the present, that offers us a way out of the world as it is, if only by glimpsing its twisted, all-too-tragic end?
His politics, haunting mysticism, and miasmic prophecy come together in an apocalyptic and sublimely dystopian vision of America, done over in a hazy scheme of blues and tropical pinks, that blearily predicts the fracturing destiny of a country still recovering from the psychic wounds of its past as it wades into the rising swamp of ecological collapse it played such a large part in creating. Chisom’s dreams, the same color as my nightmares, are a guide to the future we are bringing to fruition every day via our collective selfishness and short-sighted retreat into divisions and demographic allegiances. They serve as a surreal warning from the next century about the world we are blindly creating in our own, and it was this burgeoning societal collapse he had in mind when I spoke with him via the phone last month five weeks into the quarantine.
Talk to me about what you call “World-building”
World-building is the act of imagining demographics of people, places, political systems, economies and many other things that interact with one another to produce a state of affairs. This act is mostly thought of in the context of fiction, but I think world-building is essentially political. You can’t create a nation without producing some kind of document that does the same kind of imaginative work that I described above, and it’s no mistake that radical political projects are dismissed as “fantasy” or “sci-fi” in our political discourse.
Where and when did the idea for world-building come to you? Were you looking at other things or did it come from somewhere purely internal?
Narratives that invest heavily in world-building usually feature ensemble casts of characters as opposed to a single central character. I realized that I wanted my paintings to not focus on a single individual but hover around the events within the world itself. In my second semester in graduate school I started to focus more and more on creating series based works. I gave the works really satirical and declarative titles that reflected my own cynicism towards Christianity and my attitude towards black performativity in white spaces. Such titles were “Death Coming For That Ass”, “Swimming with Jesus is A Life Skill”, and “The Victim Complex of Straight White Sebastian” etc... Eventually, the interaction of the titles and the paintings started to imply this larger world that viewers had glimpses into. I started writing short stories that featured similar characters, attitudes and themes. By my second year I began making the work I’ve gotten some attention for and wrote a three act 60 page play. I submitted the play as my written thesis.
Tell me about your play.
So it actually started as my written thesis when I was in grad school. It’s 60 pages broken into 3 acts (and a prelude) with an ensemble cast. By the time I had finished it, I realized it was a work of its own and deserves to be theatrically produced. Though the work does not cover the same exact events in the paintings, the play itself exists in the same world, region, and general timeline that the paintings portray. It’s more like an episode in the world of my paintings. In many ways, the titles of my paintings give you a bit of a window into the way that language is treated in the play. The play meditates on the relationships between rituals of purity (from keeping your hands clean, to monitoring the color of your phlegm etc...), flood myths (apocalyptic origin stories), and genocide. And I think the language and references I make to history, literature, pop culture, and western mythology conjures the same dreamy/heady atmosphere and confused temporality that the paintings evoke. I look forward to making the play available to read during the Frieze New York online fair.
Do you think of it as being like a literature that you're populating with characters and events that you've invented or is it something else?
What I like about the work is that if I explained the narrative straight it sounds fucking insane! Like utterly ridiculous. It’s true that I am operating from a mode of strange narrative or that magical realism does occur in the paintings. However, everything I reference and put into the paintings is deeply informed by history, western mythology, and our cultural logic. This gives the paintings this sort of off feeling. Like something really isn’t quite right in a dreamy sort of way. A basic principle I have is that with every image I produce, I need to be able to point to something from real life and say, this is happening in reality. Literally.
In some ways this is sort of the antithesis of the The Turner Diaries and it shares a lot of similarities with Henry Darger's work––were those inspirations for you and are there any others that come to mind?
I love that you caught the reference to the Turner Diaries! One of the things I love about writing (at least for me) is that it imposes this research process on the writer, and the Turner Diaries was one of my central reference manuals for understanding the cultural logic and end goals of white nationalist ideology (an ahistorical white ethnic state couched in paradoxical “traditional western values”). I read a lot of books for research when I wrote my play and grad school. Other books that are central to me are “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter, “The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought”, “Mumbo Jumbo” by Ishmael Reed, H.P Lovecraft’s Cosmic horror, Mormon mythology (specifically the dark skin curse of the Lamanites)...I could seriously go on forever and ever. After grad School I read Parable of The Sower by Octavia Butler and was shocked by how resonant it was to my work. In terms of art history, Henry Darger offered a model for me to couch worldbuilding into painting and drawing practice, whereas it’s a practice typically located in literature, cinema, and graphic novels. I constantly look at Goya’s misanthropic series of etchings, Leon Golub’s paintings, Romare Bearden’s St. Martin watercolors/collages, Katherine Bradford, and Marlene Dumas.
I LOVE the titles. Can you tell me about your process for creating them? Does poetic language kind of come to you naturally?
It sort of does and it sort of doesn’t. To anyone who knows me, I think I come off as having a constant sense of humor. Initially, I could come up with a title quite intuitively. Lately it takes a lot more thought as I think about the new titles for new paintings in context to all of the previous titles to establish continuity. I like to repeat certain phrases such as “Savage South”, or “Aryanness in Other Places”, or “Year XX10” or certain words such as “final”. Much of my language comes from Black Twitter and channeling a certain backhanded cynical or somewhat dismissive voice in order to suggest the presence of a viewer who already has a formed attitude about what is being depicted. I think of the titles not merely as succinct entry points into the work but a content in itself that should be interpreted. I see the rhetoric almost as propaganda. I don’t want the paintings to seem like an illustrated bible in the context of my play, so naturally to me I felt the best way to convey that you should question the titles as well is to invoke a voice so opinionated that you question who is even speaking, where the language is coming from, and why. I reference the grammar, syntax and declarative tone in the opening crawl of the film Star Wars. Interestingly enough, I’ve never heard anyone who has watched those movies ask questions about who is relaying the information to the audience. As though “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...” was coming from the voice of God.
Are any of these figures based on people you know or have any relationship to? Is it something that you keep adding to and creating or is it more like a novel with a definite end?
No single character is based on a real individual in my paintings. It’s something Iike a novel in the sense that I know the particular communities in this world. So there’s the “Coastal Union of Civic States” who aesthetically resemble the Union Soldiers in the Civil War but are in a geographically arbitrary relationship to the Union. And then there’s the “Confederate Disaffiliation of States” which is geographically the Midwest and South/Deep South. They resemble Confederate soldiers of the past. Both countries are essentially the remnants of the USA after the country economically collapses and devolves into a failed state. Additionally, there is the “Monstrous Races of Monument Valley”, a community of nonhumans who reside in Monument Valley and are mostly in reference to western mythology. Finally, there’s the “People of Color Federation Fleet”, a fully autonomous non-terrestrial government of POCs who explore the Universe beyond the edge of the milky way. I know who the leaders and central figures of all these groups are, but I constantly add to them as I develop my narrative.
Do you feel like these figures––even if they aren't real people––are being transcribed in a real and tangible way from the canvas into our shared reality? Do you want to accomplish something in the mind of the viewer that's permanent or even moralizing?
I want the images to feel uneasy. And I want this uneasy foreboding quality to seep into the viewer. Hopefully, the viewer feels like the imagery is familiar on some level and that they’ve encountered things in these worlds before even if they can’t specifically articulate the instances that they’ve encountered these things or if the presentation of content at first makes the worlds I’m depicting feel a bit unfamiliar. I certainly think that the work insists on a moral imperative, but I don’t see the work as being particularly hopeful in its assessment of something like human nature. So there’s some level of doubt about whether we can even prevent the world I’m depicting from being realized.
I told you about a nightmare I had. How did you choose the color palette for this? I've seen them described as being like infrared images––is that sort of the key to creating the dreamscape element?
Toxic color is key to understanding the nature of these spaces as being hallucinatory dreamscapes. I think of these images as “visions” or “premonitions” of sorts. Like a cautionary tale about a world less than 20 minutes in the future that we seem to inevitably be headed towards. I use color as omen to indicate that there is something wrong with this world. Heat vision imagery (what you refer to as “infrared”) is usually imagery that problematizes its subject matter. For example when doctors look for malignant objects in the body, the colors that order themselves in infrared clusters suggest that something is cancer, in the context of meteorology these colors project the path of a storm, and in the context of the military the cluster of infrared colors isolate enemy combatants. In every instance the organizations of these colors tell you that what you are looking at is harmful or potentially harmful. I want the colors in my paintings to serve that specific role of divination.
You're using different types of paint including spray paint. How does that create what you call “hallucinatory dreamscapes?” Can you explain how they take after the tradition of different painters from the Renaissance?
So a very important painting to me is the Isenheim Alterpiece by Mathais Grunewald. The use of intense hallucinatory color, atmosphere, and the halo effect captured in that painting is one for the history books. I’m interested in the use of this sort of atmosphere in paintings in many periods of art history, such as in the Victorian Golden Age illustrations by Edmund Dulac, or Rothko paintings, and a lot of Kathy Bradford’s work. Also a major starting point really was the opening scene in the Hype Williams film starring Nas and DMX “Belly”. Which I saw when I was ten. The use of this sort of color and light fascinates because of how it portends by interrupting our idea of “natural” light.
Talk about the psychic landscape inhabit: Why do you think life in America is so traumatizing now to so many people?
Because the trauma is not acknowledged. No one acknowledges anything. It’s suffocating; like the most stereotypical idea of a tense silent thanksgiving dinner with a family you share no commonality with and don’t trust. And only for the simulacrum appearance of “national unity”. We continue to refuse to take responsibility for our complicity in systems of oppression. We are deeply insecure and egotistical as a nation. Almost as though the outcome of actually for once admitting to the deliberately engineered structural illnesses of society is death. Instead we make empty proclamations about our greatness and then, undeterred by any sense of social responsibility, we reproduce histories of violence. An outcome of unacknowledged trauma is that when triggered you can blame another for every single instance of traumatic experience despite what the individual may actually be specifically culpable of. What sort of cultural conversation can take place in that atmosphere?
What is 'revitilgo'?
I’m glad you asked me that directly! Revitiligo is a mysterious force in my work. It operates on principles of entropy and causes dark skin pigmentation. The white nationalist villain protagonists in my narrative understand this force as a “disease” that threatens to destroy the white race. The name itself is a reference to the Boondocks cartoon where a self-hating black character named Uncle Ruckus claims he has "revitiligo” to deny that he is black. In the context of the show it’s quite obviously bullshit (as opposed to the real skin phenomenon vitiligo). Bringing up the Turner Diaries again, White Nationalist ideology superstitiously views “the west” as an organism (a white ethnic state with traditional western values) in mortal danger of being contaminated by diseased non-white, non-normative degenerate others. If you need an example...well you must not read the news. To put this recent pandemic aside, you can look at the way the center-right and far-right have historically talked about immigration, or the AIDS crisis, the SARS outbreak, or “political correctness”, or Islam. Again, I can REALLY go on forever— do you remember how people were losing their shit at one point about “Africanized bees”? In fact the central narrative of “Birth of a Nation”, the origin of cinematic experience is the rape of a white woman by a black man. Which is a metaphor for miscegenation and the “rape of a nation”. My use of “revitiligo” is as a manifestation of the greatest fear of white nationalism interpreted through Lovecraft’s racist/xenophobic cosmic horror. When I was in grad school people were skeptical of me for suggesting that a white nationalist military would mobilize as a response to a racialized disease pandemic...but this was before Trump started saying he was at war with a “Chinese virus”.
How does Regionalism factor into this world? I've always thought the U.S. might break apart along regional lines. Can you see some validity of your vision ign the way certain groups of states are dealing with COVID-19?
The Coastal Union of Civic States (one of the two post-USA states that geographically are mostly the same territory) is actually interrupted by the Confederate Disaffiliation of States (the other nation). This results in the Coastal Union being a dramatically split state. In this world Ohio is actually the East Coast as all the land eastward beyond that point has been eroded by the effects of climate change. In the play, there are actual strong regional tensions between many of the American (in the continental sense). The Confederate soldiers call the Coastal soldiers “Coastals” to mock the absurdity of having an inefficiently bisected state, and the Union soldiers call the Confederates “Flyovers” despite the fact that technologically, the world has generally been reduced to the era right before the industrial revolution and thus one literally could not fly over any of the states that make up the CD of S. The two states have agendas determined by the distinctions in their racist attitudes. I.e white nationalism versus white supremacy. Whereas the Coastals don’t mind or can potentially “tolerate” the presence of degenerate others at low levels so long resolute dominance over the other is maintained, the Confederates want to annihilate degenerates of all kind forever as any such presence of these others jeopardizes the status of their ethnic state. Regarding COVID-19, I wrote the play in the winter of 2018. So I’m hesitant to reduce the work to being read in terms of this current moment as opposed to the larger arc of historical shifts that has led us here today of which COVID-19 is the latest episode. I will say however that, in the play the Confederates do internalize similar denialist tendencies exhibited by certain states in the USA. The one giant distinction is that the Confederates still want individual states to have the right to determine the response to revitiligo as opposed to COVID reality, in which everything is upside down including political compasses and companies will pay you $40 bucks to get a barrel of oil.
Generally speaking, do you believe in the “salvation of man by man?” Do you want your spirit to be in this world in 100 years or is it best if it went somewhere else, at least for a little while?”
Our salvation can only be obtained through imagining new societal structures. I don’t mean that to sound so clinical, but I really do believe in generational trauma. I see ghosts and spirits as usually being produced by the societal structures of their time. So a lingering spirit is usually the trace residue of unfulfilled desire. They haunt this world because they have business that could not be finished when they were corporeally present in the world of their era. At least that’s how I see spirits. Hopefully, in 100 years I’ll be “somewhere else for a little while”