'Oklahoma Is Black': Internationally known artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh celebrates the 'everyday, regular blackness' of her hometown
This spring, portraits of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s mother, aunts and brother, faces of folks from her old neighborhood and even her memories of burgers from Geronimo’s and chicken from Bobo’s are emblazoned on the walls of Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.
“There are memories that I have of Oklahoma that since I have left that I see as these sort of shared black experiences … for a lot of black folks in America: things like going over to your grandmother’s house or playing with your play cousins or listening to a certain type of music or things that we do with our hair as black women,” the Oklahoma City native said.
“It’s really these small moments that sort of make up your life that just happen organically that we sometimes don’t notice or acknowledge because they’re just an everyday part of our lives that I really want to pull out and pinpoint and to celebrate — to celebrate really just everyday, regular blackness.”
Titled “Oklahoma Is Black,” the exhibition of large-scale wheatpaste posters and vivid oil paintings is the first hometown show for the internationally known artist who grew up on Oklahoma City’s east side. The opening reception drew more than 500 people, setting a record for Oklahoma Contemporary, which is moving later this year into a new downtown facility.
“Tatyana gets most of the credit for the beautiful work that she did, not only in her studio creating these large wheatpaste works and the oil paintings, but also in her extensive outreach into the community,” said Jeremiah Matthew Davis, Oklahoma Contemporary artistic director. “I think her friends and family, people in her circle, are really excited for her success that she’s been able to achieve in New York City and were thrilled to welcome her home.”
Fazlalizadeh was 17 when she left her hometown for Philadelphia to attend The University of the Arts. She lived there for almost 10 years before moving to Brooklyn, where she first came to widespread attention with her “Stop Telling Women to Smile” street art series. She used an adhesive called wheatpaste to plaster the large-scale drawings to walls around the world.
“That was something that sort of happened very organically," she said. “I moved to Philadelphia; I started experiencing a ton of street harassment. It had become part of my everyday life, and I wanted to do work that was about it. So, I sort of ventured out of oil painting, which is what I usually do, into doing more public art and street art during that project. Since then, my work has definitely changed.”
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Her street art caught the eye of Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, who chose her to create work for his Netflix series “She's Gotta Have It.” And when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, she channeled her emotions into a new street art piece titled “America Is Black,” which she put up in her hometown over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“It was really just me saying back to the public, saying back to the city, especially this state, but also speaking to America in general about who America is. ...(It’s) saying that America are all these other different folks: black folks, brown folks, queer folks, all these different people. It’s not just that we are here, but that we have been here. ... This country was obviously built on the backs of black people and all types of people,” she said.
“It was me just sort of like coming back and saying, ‘This is actually who we are,’ and not just that but looking specifically at very white places ... and going to talk to people who live in those places and trying to hear from them what their experiences are.”
Fazlalizadeh created a new version of the drawing for the new exhibit, and it features portraits of people of color, along with the statement, “America is black. It is Native. It wears a hijab. It is a Spanish speaking tongue. It is migrant. It is trans. It is disabled. It is queer. It is a woman. It is here. Has been here. And it’s not going anywhere.”
“America is so much more, it’s so diverse, there are so many people in America that sometimes don’t get recognition, don’t get their voices heard,” said Jennifer Scanlan, Oklahoma Contemporary’s curatorial and exhibitions director, recalling the impact of the original piece.
“For her, Oklahoma is black in addition to all of the other things we know about Oklahoma. So, she really wanted to look at black Oklahomans and what their lives are like.”
When Oklahoma Contemporary invited her to create a site-specific exhibit, Fazlalizadeh, 33, said it came with the freedom to create whatever show she wanted.
“Whenever I travel around, at some point, someone’s gonna ask me, ‘I didn’t know that there were black people in Oklahoma?’ ... It sort of blows my mind, so I wanted this show to touch on that,” she said. “I’ve never shown in Oklahoma City before, and not only that, but I’m showing work that features Oklahomans, that is about them. … It’s a very, very personal show for me.”
To prepare for the exhibit, she made a series of visits to her hometown last year to interview and photograph people, drive around her old neighborhood and even host an autumn open call on the east side to discuss black experiences in OKC. She took it all in and used it to create her new drawings and paintings.
“I hope that these people just look like regular black folks, ’cause that’s who they are. And I think that they are important simply because of that," she said. "I learned a lot, and I also gained, I think, more of an appreciation for Oklahoma City, which is why I’m glad to do this show. Because I always claim Oklahoma, I always tell people I’m an Oklahoma City native, I’m proud to be from here. So, doing this show gave me more knowledge about the city, which made me appreciate it even more.”
What: “Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Oklahoma is Black”
Through: May 18.
Where: Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, 3000 General Pershing Blvd.
Artist discussion: 6 p.m. April 18.
Gallery talks: 6 p.m. Tuesdays April 9 and 23 and May 7.
Information: 951-0000 and oklahomacontemporary.org.