An Afrofuturist vision of Atlanta infuses Antonio Scott Nichols’ marvelous painterly world
Space is the place in an exhibition as visually compelling as it is adept at storytelling.
The Great Migration was a decades-long movement of Black Americans to seek better opportunities and to escape the racism of the Jim Crow South beginning in the 1910s.
Atlanta native Antonio Scott Nichols (who now lives in Philadelphia) takes that historical phenomenon and bends it through a sci-fi lens in a gorgeously rendered, visually complex exhibition at UTA Artist Space. In his quirky, inventive solo exhibition “The Wayward Passage” Nichols imagines that instead of a journey from the South to greener fields in the North, West or Midwest, that Black Americans are traveling from America to Saturn. His highly narrative paintings are laced with small surprises and Easter eggs embedded in his layered storylines. His paintings track the progress of that journey from Earth to Saturn, as citizens begin to look to the heavens for “Escape!” as one painting “Rumors of Ascent” offers in fat cloud letters above the heads of two hip young men.
As you follow Nichols’ storyline from right to left, events unfold like a dystopian yarn, but one infused with touchstones of hardboiled detective novels. His paintings’ protagonists sip scotch (neat) and draw on cigarettes or pipes, world weary but also totally chill. In “Blueprint of the Future” a woman sits at her hulking wooden office desk toking on a cigarette, a glass of whisky close by. Her retro desk lamp and the brick row houses seen through the window behind her suggest a historic neighborhood in Brooklyn or Atlanta, but upon closer inspection the Apple logo on her laptop has been replaced with an image of Saturn. And the sky outside her office glows mauve, one of Saturn’s rings arching across the sky like a sinister rainbow.
As Nichols’ yarn unfolds, some of Nichols’ subjects pack for Saturn lugging vintage luggage and wearing garb that blends contemporary Nikes and Puma sweatshirts with the wide leg pants, shawl collar coats and fedoras that mix the past with the present. In “The Wayward Passage,” Black people queue in a verdant park, promenading toward the silver space craft hovering in the distance. This double-entendred space race is bittersweet for promising utopia but possibly delivering something more middling, much as the dreams of the Great Migration might have abutted hope with compromise.
In addition to his suite of story paintings, Nichols includes two smaller works that feel, frankly, less consequential, thin sketches in his complex tapestry. He also includes a small wooden newsstand smack in the middle of the gallery with stacks of newspapers called the “Somewhere Dimension” which offer another retro redolent storyline in headlines and copy for the Afrofuturist Great Migration Nichols envisions.
Nichols’ inspiration is the Afrofuturism of Parliament-Funkadelic musician George Clinton and jazz adventurer Sun Ra and writers like Octavia Butler. It’s a vision of a better world far from compromised planet Earth that may or may not turn out to be dope. Afrofuturism imagines Black agency and freedom through imagination. It’s much like the way another Atlanta-based story in the “Black Panther” films inspired with their Black-centric superheroes and alt universe of power and possibility. Colson Whitehead’s magical realism, Jordan Peele’s sci-fi fantasies, DC Comics and Tricia Hersey’s Nap Ministry commandment of Black leisure coalesce in a show that feels capable of uniting myriad disparate cultural threads into one completist whole.
In many ways “The Wayward Passage” is a love letter to Atlanta. In Nichols’ rendering it’s home to Black cool, the Atlanta Daily World (referenced throughout the show as the agent of Black news and progress), a verdant, blue-sky landscape and historic brick buildings. Nichols’ subjects are his own friends and family which give his work a simpatico alignment with other rising stars like Jurell Cayetano, Ariel Dannielle (whose own show opens Dec. 1 at UTA) and Gerald Lovell.
Deeply satisfying for its storytelling qualities and the melancholy arc of Nichols’ passage as his citizens yearn for salvation but settle into resignation, “The Wayward Passage” is a mirror of our own world, but one infused with the magic and inventiveness of an artist who lets us see it anew.