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Antonio Scott Nichols: Interdimensional Life on Saturn

On view at UTA Artist Space in Atlanta, Antonio Scott Nichols has meticulously built a world with attention to every detail, paying homage to African-American history by employing innovative figurations. The show titled The Wayward Passage is aptly named, as “wayward” implies something challenging to control or predict due to willful or perverse behaviour, capturing the remarkable migration that unfolds in the show. Inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, James Van Der Zee photographs, George Clinton’s music, Sun-ra’s bond to the extraterrestrial, and Octavia Butler’s afro-futuristic science fiction – Nichols reveals a story of his own.


Rumors of Ascent, 2023. Photographed by Michael Shepherd. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space.


Upon entering the space, the what-if story begins with Rumors of Ascent. Based on Jacob Lawrence’s painting, And people all over the South began to discuss this great movement; Nichols reimagined Lawrence’s interpretation of the Great Migration of the 1920s. However, instead of migrating North, half of the Black population migrates to Saturn.


Photographed by Mike Jensen. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space.


When viewed chronologically, the paintings offer fragmented moments of the future past, contrasting the experience of those who went to Saturn with those who stayed on Earth. This alternate version of history raises important questions and challenges our understanding of resources and possibilities. What if people of colour had done this then? What if it happened now? Could it occur in the next 100 years?


Photographed by Johan Orellana.


Nichols’ strategy of implementing UFOs as the vehicle for migration was sparked by listening to the iconic 70s music group Parliament and their song, Mothership Connection. After synchronously pulling inspiration from Sun-ra, a musician who declared himself an alien from Saturn, Nichols pondered what would happen if people settled there. The mode of transportation becomes noteworthy, as it stands as an inventive alternative to fleeing southern Jim Crow oppression by train in pursuit of stability and autonomy.


The Wayward Passage, 2023. Photographed by Michael Shepherd. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space.


Nichols is profoundly influenced by how art can endure time; this is seen in his work’s direct references to past interpretations of the black experience. In two of his paintings, he prominently features the words THE CRISIS, a tribute to the newspaper produced by W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP. Simultaneously, he utilized the fashion of artists from the 1920s to dress his figures and decorate the settings in which they exist, combining concepts and themes of the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement.


The Forthcoming Disappearance, 2023. Photographed by Michael Shepherd. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space.


In speaking about the process of his work, Nichols shared that he uses a white background when photographing the figures posing. Afterwards, his imagination does the legwork to formulate the scenes. By intuitively selecting some of his closest friends to pose for the paintings, Nichols infuses his art with the emotions and connections he shares with his inner circle, elevating his work to a narrative of love, kinship, and adventure.


Photographed by Mike Jensen. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space.


Devised in tandem with the paintings, Nichols collaborated with friend and writer Summer Grace to produce informative print media about life on Saturn. The newspapers intended to provide valuable knowledge about the planet and alleviate doubts regarding the sustainability of livelihood.


Is This Collective Consciousness, 2023. Photographed by Michael Shepherd. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space


The newspaper pays tribute to the Atlanta Daily World, the oldest continually operating Black newspaper in Atlanta, founded in 1928. The decision to reference the influential publication was deliberate as it reinterprets methods of assembling a collective consciousness and solidifies the sociological ecosystem of Saturn. Written with free verse poetry influenced by Lucille Clifton’s golden shovel method, Grace wrote optimistic and harrowing words to align with the bold headlines in the newspapers. This includes sections dedicated to interplanetary economic affairs, opportunities to accumulate generational wealth, and inviting descriptions of infrastructure, classifieds, recipes, and crosswords. In composing these aspects of society, Grace grounded the artwork’s story while reclaiming African-American and Indigenous relationships to land.

“His show is not just beautiful art; it is a well-thought-out idea drawn from many artists and writers,” says Grace.


Mama Put Her Foot In It, 2023. Photographed by Michael Shepherd. Courtesy of UTA Artist Space.


When looking at the final painting, Mama Put Her Foot In It, one can’t help but gaze and feel a sense of romantic idealization of life on a new planet. After painting himself into the work, Nichols is featured with a deep, contemplative look. The show presents a world free from the horrors of race and class disputes, an ideal world we can all aspire to, focused on peace and respite. This underpinning concept raises intriguing questions, such as whether the things we learn on Earth, like capitalism and corruption, will come into play on Saturn.

Nichols aims to design a cohesive universe in which all of his works are interconnected, and so far, he has been undeniably successful in achieving this goal. He dreams of one day having a retrospective exhibition that would culminate his vision, showcasing moments of contention and their outcomes. But for now, the audience is left questioning what they know and believe to be true, immersing themselves in this new reality.