Torkwase Dyson dives into the history of Black liberation with ‘Bird and Lava’

The painter on Black Compositional Thought, the climate crisis, and how scuba diving informs her work

“If Blackness is already an architectonic developed out of liquidity (ocean), can the work embody this phenomenon and offer sensation (sensoria) at the register of liberation?” Torkwase Dyson posed this question when conceiving Bird and Lava, the body of work she began creating during a residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

When Dyson started her residency earlier last year, she, along with the rest of the world, faced the new reality ushered in by COVID. But the concept of distance is nothing new for the Chicago-born, New York-based artist, who used the onset of the pandemic and the need to socially distance as an opportunity to explore new ways of working. Dyson uses a language of shapes, textures, and forms that—although abstract and conceptual in nature—evoke both her personal narrative and that of her ancestors. In her work, she explores deep-rooted, systemically-induced trauma, reconfiguring natural environments and architecture to reveal latent sites of Black liberation.

Dyson describes this unseen portfolio of work, in which she creates her own codes as “an overall form that speaks to the history of Black spatial liberations [sic] strategies and the contemporary climate crisis. I’ve constructed a form by drawing, sketching, and modeling these vast geographic, architectural, and infrastructural spaces used for liberation,” she explains. “I’ve found my way to a method and expression that regards these histories as necessary throughways to navigating violent systems. This has become a meditation for me: a moment of solitude where I can simply honor deep freedom.”

In a way, Dyson’s work can be viewed as an act of liberation in itself, providing a counter-narrative to her ancestors’ forced voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and the oppression they faced in America. Document spoke to the artist about Bird and Lava, her concept of “Black Compositional Thought,” and how scuba diving has informed her work.

Untitled. Gouache, acrylic, and pen on paper. 12 x 9 inches, 2020.

Ann Binlot: Can you elaborate on Bird and Lava, the work that came out of this period?

Torkwase Dyson: When COVID and social distancing started, it was a very good moment to radically slow down. It was also serendipitous because I had completed three projects with ‘distance’ in the title over the last two years. The phrase ‘bird and lava’ came out of some of the writing, and I decided to extrapolate on it. What does it mean to be different kinds of forms, create different kinds of forms, use different kinds of forms, acknowledge different kinds of forms—what does it mean to be pluralistic in that being? What does it mean to act or think discursively?

I was granted a residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts, and it was a perfect time to dig into these ideas and end this period of distance and isolation—the screens, technology, politics, ecology—to keep my body active and my hands active. The haptic became really important to me. Meditation became really important to me. Thinking about the history of liberation acts became really important to me. I started making animations and drawings and imagining these life sculptures. This period was really productive for me. It was a moment when I could go deeper into my own archive and pull out something I think I could really say is my true self.

Ann: What is this theory of Black Compositional Thought?

Torkwase: Black Compositional Thought is a phrase that I’ve been working on for a very long time. It is a theoretical platform that I use to think about ways in which people of color, Black people—Black women, more specifically—move their bodies through the world, negotiate the world, make space and geographies in the world. I pulled out ways of knowing things spatially, and ways of thinking about the history of environmental conditions, and the future of environmental conditions, and how Black people negotiate these things constantly. Black Compositional Thought is acutely aware of these prolific understandings and embodiments of the world, and how they manifest themselves through architecture, engineering, natural environments, man-made environments. That has to do with the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the trade post-emancipation—how we respond to space in this set of revolutionary ways. I didn’t name Black Compositional Thought until I thought about the capabilities and abilities that were going to be needed for more equitable futures for our global and local kin. What does it mean to prepare for a future, with the worsening environmental crisis, where we understand indigenism and modernity? Where we understand the pendulum that swings in between, and extract what can help us develop futures where people can be non-hunted, so that their bodies can feel liberatory and their consciousness can be free to go and expand and change?

Ann: How did you go about conducting your research?

Torkwase: Most of it is lived experience. It’s about community, people I speak to, fellow artists, books I read. Some I will research intentionally, and some is not research so much as curious living. It’s loving and admiring; it gives me a feeling of being in conversation with things that help me figure out the world. It’s a kind of necessity. Well-being is to be engaged relationally in the world, so it could be everything from walking near water or thinking about relativity, to thinking about food or geography. It can be thinking about moving through buildings in a particular way, watching old films, listening to music—all of this. I’m not an academic, and I’m not interested in centralizing anything, or centralizing how I come to know things, so it’s all over the place.

Untitled. Acrylic on canvas. 38 x 38 inches, 2020.

Ann: Could you speak about any of these experiences in detail, or about those that are embedded within your work?

Torkwase: Scuba diving and working in water. [Understanding geography] activates a lot of the painterly liquid balance in the work. I go to the Gulf Coast, South Africa, Central America, and I try to get my body in water and understand the infrastructure that’s connected to extraction and unsustainable resources. Those are experiences that get put into the work.

Ann: How do you feel when you’re underwater? For me, it’s so magical. But I find it a bit sad because you see the decline in the ecosystems.

Torkwase: I think about the oceans as a commons. Being in the ocean, I try to understand the ecosystem—how the creatures, materials, minerals, caverns, and light interact. I don’t have a particular kind of melancholy when I do it. Over the centuries, individuals—Black people, in particular—have been sacrificed on the ocean, because people have used it as a superhighway. I’m aware that there are energy particles—ancestorship—that belong to a commons with all of the other sentient beings living there. When I’m there, I try to be in the moment, really conscious of what’s around me, allowing my individual senses to open up and be present and aware that I’m not alone. As a Black woman, I belong to the distance between solitude and the commons. I’m aware of it when I’m in the water, and I feel a sense of belonging when I’m there that I take with me when I’m not.

Ann: You’ve been very busy this year. What have you been working on? What’s next for you?

Torkwase: I’m still in residence at the Wex, so I’m taking the animations that I’ve been doing and expanding on them. They’re stop animations that are heavily influenced by drawing. I’ve been looking at a lot of William Kendrick’s work and thinking about Rodney McMillian’s surfaces. I’ve also been thinking about the ways in which someone like Alison Saar tells a story. I’m having a good time researching. And [the animations are] improvisational—they’re all done in one or two sittings. The studio is filled with these moments where I’m playing and thinking about materials, touch, and surface in a way that I haven’t done in the past. I’m most excited about all the animations and drawings that are about sculpture, because they came out of a summit during COVID, where a lot of solitude is happening, [combined with the] continued, ongoing onslaught of white supremacist violence. [It’s] like all that is forever. In that ongoingness, my senses are still operating and my body is still present and resisting in a sort of organic way. Chaos, right?