Enduring Spirit: Curator Statement
Will South, Curator, Porchia Moore
Columbia, Museum Of Art

Tyrone Geter lives, as we all do, in an embattled world.
From a multitude of sources, one reads, hears and is told everyday of competing ideas about the past, the present, the future and the very idea of what truth may or may not be. Perhaps our species has always been aggressively competitive, but on a planet full of people with instant access to information the clash of differences has only intensified (this opinion is itself a contested idea). Working in a time and place where the number of images around us is becoming unimaginable (it is estimated that well over a trillion new images will be created in 2017 alone), what could be the relevance of another dozen? And, what could be the motivation to add to the contentious discourse all around?

It is in the very dangers of a fragile and mistrustful planet that Tyrone Geter finds the continued relevance of and motivation for image-making: more images are necessary if the right images do not yet exist. Tyrone Geter is an artist whose works not only add to this body of images for our consumption, but he does so specifically with the intent to counter negative images of African Americans. Geter’s work provides a new lens in which to see themselves absent white gaze, labels, or the burden of media or stereotype. His works provide opportunity for reflection and pause. A chance to contemplate beauty and sorrow. The images in Enduring Spirit intentionally provoke dialogue about complex intersections of race, history, gender, and identity.

Among the trillions of images created and being created is the ubiquitous “selfie,” that opportunistic cell-phone shot that documents the individual on vacation, with a cat, or for no particular reason at all. What the vast majority of these images lack, for all of their entertainment value, is the poetry to make them compelling and the insight to make them revelatory. The same may be said of the bulk of advertising imagery and images amassed by the second on social media sites. To begin to have a chance to understand something about someone via an image, that image must be composed and created with an eye toward psychological and physical substance. If we see only images of nonchalant and casual glibness, or worse—of insidious stereotype—there is no chance of knowing another through seeing. Another kind of image needs to exist for that to happen.

Enter Tyrone Geter.
The image, “I Don’ Old, I Don Tire, But I Ain’t No Ways Done,” is a striking one. The singular figure is arresting, in part, because it is a drawing and therefore remains a unique object and not a collection of pixels. Secondly, the drawing is large in scale. Geter confers a monumentality onto this picture of a solitary woman and the size itself declares importance—this scale says “look at me.” And, we do. We are drawn to the emphatic level of skill brought to the drawing. Over a lifetime, Tyrone Geter has worked to develop and refine the skills that would allow him to give free reign to his emotions and imagination. In “I Don Old,” lines criss-cross and collide across a large expanse of paper, at once describing forms and simultaneously taking on life as lines of energy in and of themselves. The goal of drawing, after all, is not just to describe and delimit, but to create an object that has its own purpose, which is to act as a conduit of experience.
And, what do we or what can we experience here?

To answer this, we arrive at the least obvious aspect of “I Don Old.” And, that is what the drawing is not. It is not an image we see over and over on the cover of fashion magazines while standing in line to buy groceries. It is not the starlet on the screen inside a darkened theater. It is not the standard fare of social media, let alone of the marketing industries around the globe. In “I Don Old,” Geter pays homage to an African woman that he knew and built a friendship with when he resided in a remote part of Nigeria. The artist spent seven years in Nigeria, immersed in the culture and history of Africa. His awareness of the importance of masks, dress and ritual is brought to bear on his African American subjects who are, in Geter’s view, welcome mirrors helping him find meaning in his own complex identity as both black and American.

When Geter learned of this woman’s death, he took to paper processing her life and ultimately his own emotion upon learning of her passing. She is a fearsome figure and commands not only the viewer’s immediate attention; but also the positioning of her body evokes, in some form, an invitation to consider one’s own dalliance with ferocity. Geter embodies his friend with no pretense or allegiance to high fashion or a beneficiary of wealth. The artist indulges no artistic gimmickry in representing her, no self-conscious flashes of style that detract from her straightforward representation. Even if we do not know her name, Geter explains much of who she is. She is full-figured (as opposed to rail thin); liberated despite her seeming proximity to poverty. He chooses to illuminate her liveliness employing black and white (as opposed to glossy, air-brushed full color); and staring straight at us with all the intensity of a woman connected to self. This is a singular person, spilling forward into our space with a sense of presence that is tangible—we feel her in front of us.

This is a powerful individual—a survivor. She is the stuff of Black Girl Magic, African strength, and perseverance. We see that she is crafted by pain and endurance, survival, and joy, even as the specific realities of her life are not fully articulated. We sense her majesty and we know it. By conferring uniqueness, monumental scale and skill onto an image that we do not routinely see, Tyrone Geter makes this picture compelling and important and, as a direct consequence, the image becomes instantly relevant: this person, the artist says, is someone you should see. She is someone you should know. Geter further connects his African roots with those of his American roots by using the dark raven-colored bird in the figure’s hair to call to mind African American folklore of the crow’s ability to help black people “fly away home.” Geter invokes the negro spiritual tradition of connecting Africa with her progeny, wherever they may be. With this image, Tyrone Geter stakes a claim—one that needs to continually be staked in a world of endless images—for the importance of the unique and individual image that is not always seen. To really know the individuals of this world, we need to stop and really see them. To take a selfie, all one needs is a phone. To create a visual life, we need an artist.

Tyrone Geter says of his work:
Through art, I have managed to see some of the world beyond my windows. By studying and painting the figure, I have seen how the body wears the joys and blues of its interior. In my art, I try to show our strength and value as humans and to restore the dignity that is so often stripped from us, to depict our lives and bodies as monuments of something other, and much more, than their suffering. To do this—to “restore the dignity that is so often stripped from us”—is no easy or simple task. When the artist achieves it, as he has in so much of his work, his ultimate goal is to communicate. To communicate, of course, requires an audience willing to stop, look and listen. The artist has no control over that—he or she can only do the work, put it out there, and hope that their images will engage a conversation. Tyrone Geter has maintained that hope for decades.

Sitting and talking with Tyrone Geter in the living room of his home, one begins to get an understanding of where his ability to sustain hope comes from, where his personal persistence and drive originated. Geter will unabashedly tell you that his sense of personal values and his compulsion to communicate were formed early by family and community. He grew up, he will tell you, surrounded by expectations: you had to show up, do what you were asked to do, and do your best. Along with the expectations came love and support, both at home and along the streets of the neighborhood. Geter calmly and warmly remembers the great lesson from his mother, who would ask (not rhetorically): “If you are not doing for others, what is it you are doing?”

Capturing and revealing the dignity of the individual is Tyrone Geter’s way of doing for others. This is a simple enough goal to understand on the surface, but and extremely complex goal to realize. We have to go back to the combination of obvious and subtle methods employed by the artist to fully appreciate the power of what he presents. In the recent drawing, My Beauty is Not My Beast, Geter repeats his familiar compositional strategy of centering a single large figure on the drawing paper. Unlike I Don Old, My Beauty is Not My Beast is a full color drawing that also uses torn colored paper as a medium. The artist’s graphic feeling for line is present as ever, but here the random edges of torn paper play a key role: the spaces between collaged bits of paper become energized by the randomness of direction, size and weight. Large swaths of this work of art descend into abstraction.

But the face of the figure is firm and distinct, confidently modeled with a rich palette that stretches from umber to violet. She is wholly and fully herself, not a stand-in for women or people in general. Very unlike I Don Old, however, this Beauty does not look at us, but beyond us. Her eyes are fixed on something that seems to be happening far away, or perhaps only in her mind. Meanwhile, her crown is a forest of brilliant color supported by tree limbs that seem to grow directly from the figure’s neck and head. She is, then, like a tree that grows from the tumultuous geography that is her body. Geter has drawn a face here that is an island of calm amid explosive color and shape, almost separate from her spectacular dress but nonetheless one with it. Though the female figure in My Beauty is Not My Beast does not meet our gaze, we see still see and feel her apparent strength and regal resolve.

The artist here is actively encouraging dialogue about beauty standards. In a historical context, black women have been systematically denied the benefit of being called pretty or beautiful when pitted against white standards of beauty. In many cases, as we see even with the case of First Lady Michelle Obama who has been consistently labeled ugly and whose features are compared to that of an ape, historically the notion of black beauty is complex such that even when beauty is recognized, black women’s beauty is still relegated to a substandard set of qualities. In short, with this title, Geter is communicating that there is no burden in a black woman’s beauty but rather the simple, quiet strength of the beauty announcing itself with pride without the need for validation.

In the series of pastels entitled, Four Women (A Tribute to Nina Simone), Geter creates variations on the themes found in My Beauty is Not My Beast. In each of the four women depicted in this series, none, like the My Beauty is Not My Beast, look at us. Their gaze is in each case past us to some event or place or perhaps nothing in particular. But each carries a demeanor and decorum that is queenly. The inspiration for the elegance of spirit these figures evoke comes from the artist’s great admiration for the timeless singer, Nina Simone. There are countless black artists in varying genres who draw untold inspiration from the work of jazz singer and composer, Nina Simone. Her pro-black rhetoric and political fire make her one of the most prolific and important singer-activists of her time and continues to inspire identity and liberation movements for people across the world through her music. In illustrating the discourse and activism of Nina Simone, Geter is intentionally calling to mind narratives of social justice, liberation, womanism, race and racism, and personal power.

Tyrone Geter unabashedly writes: “I am a great fan of Nina Simone. I have always found her voice, her manner, her commitment to the truth, to be an integral part of the Black struggle.” The song, Four Women, has been covered by a multitude of recording artists including neo-soul singers Jill Scott and Ledisi. The song was first released in 1966 on Simone’s album, Wild is the Wind. The song is a reflection on the archetypes, if not stereotypes, of black womanhood originating from the negative impact of the institution of slavery. Each woman calls to mind a range of varying archetypes for black women from poor, impoverished work mules to harlots and prostitutes. More importantly, as a very dark-skinned woman, Nina Simone spoke loudly about her love for black people and her black skin. She worked hard to champion and normalize the beauty of dark skin and urged her listeners to value black beauty as enchanting and visible as any beauty standard that white American culture approved. This is exactly the sentiment Geter brings forth in his tribute. Each woman has her own lyrics in the song and speaks to the impact of colorism and how colorism intersects with the perils of socioeconomics in their lives as black women.

In Peaches (from Four Women: A Tribute to Nina Simone), the face is again expertly crafted into individuality. The eyes narrow to scrutinize (but, what?), the lips feel set and sealed. She is firm. Around her neck is an iridescent green necklace that shimmers through the azure of her blouse. Perhaps, more important than any point in Nina Simone’s song is the final line when Peaches shout out loudly screaming, “my name is Peaches!” That emphatic declaration is an affirmation to strength and endurance of black women in general having survived both the cyclic oppressions of the institution of slavery and the tense periods of the Civil Rights movement.

It is the shape of her hair, though, that is startling: the strands of thick hair weave and undulate their way into the shape of a butterfly. Like the figure in My Beauty is Not My Beast who is part tree, Peaches is partly a fantastic winged creature. She is closely connected to Nature, too—robust and serious, but dreamlike and shape-shifting. She is, let there be no doubt, complicated. Complicated and fascinating. Peaches appear to us as if in a daydream where someone we clearly recognize suddenly takes flight, then we snap awake. The person is still there. And, perhaps they do fly.

Geter shifts seamlessly back and forth between the obvious and more diasporic symbols in his series, Sweet Thing (from Four Women: A Tribute to Nina Simone). Sweet Thing (from Four Women: A Tribute to Nina Simone) presents us with a figure that may be looking at us, but, in truth, we cannot really see her eyes at all. The fabulous hat she wears grows from her head, too, and the hat is likewise a pair of wings. From the hat/wings grow tree limbs that rise upward. All around this figure is a wide, empty sky, one we feel she will rise into. Geter joins fact and fantasy to underscore the preciousness of the person who has wings and who would fly.

In this series, Saffronia (from Four Women: A Tribute to Nina Simone) may be the most visually evasive. The woman known as Saffronia is a very light skinned woman. Her beauty is not only prized but also provides her with a sense of pain as well. Of all the characters from Nina Simone’s song, Saffronia is wrought with the tensions of being both an object of desire as well as suffering the visibility of being the likely product of the worse portions of the traumatic history of slavery. We do see, though, that her eyes are obscured, muted, through the blue. Like the heavy shadow in Sweet Thing, the eyes are shadowed by large natural forces, yet still they look through. It is a close and intimate poetry the artist throws up for us to read: how can a person really be seen in such shadows or such refraction? How can they see us? Brilliant color is everywhere, but certain knowledge is not. What the artist does clearly provide is an invitation to see, so strong is the design and the relentless shower of color.

Geter returns to a black and white format in his series entitled, The Art of the Misdirect. The figures now are all men, gone are references to butterflies and wings. With his black female figures, Geter focuses on color and beauty issues, while with his male figures Geter creates a counter narrative centered around processing black masculinity. Geter’s young men are depicted with headgear of torn paper and patterns that speak to elaborate an important meaning of ferocity, royalty, and budding virility.

In order to understand what Geter is asking us to consider in The Art of the Misdirect, we must first understand the elaborate history of what appears to be a mundane clothing item—the hoodie. The history of the concept of the hoodie has early origins dating as far back as Roman times. According to fashion history, the actual term, “hoodie” was coined by athletic company, Champion. The sweatshirt with a hood, created in the 1930s, was designed to protect athletes (runners, for example) from harsh elements while they trained outdoors. From there, the hoodie became wildly popular, and stood out as a fashion staple recognized first by young teenagers and then the rest of society as easy, cheap, casual wear. Now, celebrities such as Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah are known to wear hoodies.

The hoodie became ubiquitous, worn everywhere and by people from differing socioeconomic backgrounds. Its very commonality made the hoodie something of a mask that could allow the wearer—whomever they may be--to dissolve into the crowd, safe from society’s harsh, often racially-charged spaces. However, it has been specifically young black and brown men wearing hoodies who have become identified with crimes committed by others while wearing hoodies. In recent years, this negative association has been dramatically challenged in the wake of the tragedy of Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin, was brutally gunned down while wearing a hoodie in 2012. In an instant, the hoodie became a symbol of freedom and solidarity for all the young black men who had had been the victims of not only police brutality and brute racism, but also varying forms of oppression which ultimately ended in the death and or brutalization or incarceration of unarmed black men. The hoodie became an item of clothing worn by those seeking an image of strength, toughness, and edge.

In this series on hoodies, Geter’s counter-narrative is that young black men, in all their physical beauty and power are more than the negative labels and sterotypes placed upon them. Rather than rest in the notion that wearing a hoodie relegates young black men to being super predators or Outsiders, Geter insists that we pay attention to the intentional misdirect of a social fabric prone to prejudicial condemnation of these men and instead embrace their charm, grace, beauty, majesty—even black boy joy.

The strong, warrior-like face of In the Hood #1 is surrounded by torn paper patterns that spread into white plumage at the back. Despite being obviously torn and ragged, the apparel feels stylishly elegant. There is an absolute uniqueness, Geter suggests, to everyone: this particular face and this particular dress combine to look like no other. The title of this series is an important clue to its message. The Art of the Misdirect refers to an ancient technique practiced by magicians: if you can make people look one direction, then they will not see your sleight of hand, or, in other words, your deception. In politics, if we focus on stereotypes—especially those of young black men—then we not only do not see those young men but we completely fail to see the larger problems posed by an ongoing lack of equal opportunity. Geter makes this case in words in his notes on this series:
When looking at our world today, dress, hair styles, color and a host of other things are the preferred method of visually separating races and social classes. Mass media persuades the white working class that young people in hoods wearing dreads are dangerous, criminals, welfare cheats, etc. Truth has no place in the dialogue. In the drawing, Just Ain’t What You’re Thinking (from The Art of the Misdirect), another fabulous headdress is created over the head of a plaintive young man, head bowed, eyes heavy-lidded. The motif of tree limbs or heavy grass growing from the crown of the hat appears over an empty background. Geter is seeking the viewer to call to mind both the lynching tree and the crucifix, both painfully historic emblems calling to mind seizure and sacrifice. Torn paper hangs down along and below the neck like massive earrings. He could be an ancient prince, he could be a tired warrior.

In Geter’s absorbing image, Urban Camouflage, his knack for joining the visually bold and graphic with subtle suggestion is in full play. This figure walks directly toward us, there is no mistaking his presence or his direction. The enormous, heavy folds of his clothes are clear. A highlight on his chin gleams and lends a sharp clarity to what we see of the face. Which is incomplete. Again, eyes are shrouded. This time not by shadow, but by choice. What is the intent of the figure who moves toward us? If the eyes are the window to the soul, is there no soul here? Geter is most certainly not saying that. He might be saying, though, that this young man’s soul is hidden. You cannot see into it. So, too, are the hands hidden. What is this man’s intent? Impossible to say. We only know that he is coming forward. Draped from head to nearly toe, it could well be he wishes to remain anonymous or, as the drawing’s title suggests, camouflaged. He may, then, be at war. But with whom? With what? Nothing in the drawing tells us.
The drawing does suggest, though, that this young man who would be camouflaged lives, like us and like the artist, in an embattled world. He receives conflicting information all of the time about who would seek to help him and very often those are the very people who would hurt him. If this is really a land of freedom and choice, he appears to have chosen the freedom not to be recognized as if, perhaps, life will be more easily navigated that way.

Tyrone Geter’s visual poetry, bold and monumental and yet subtle and symbolic, steers us toward the recognition of individual lives but falls short of specifically defining those lives. Such definition is up to the individual. It is for the artist to help the individual be seen, to create the images that need to exist for meaningful conversations to happen. That is Tyrone Geter’s role as he understands it and as he works. “If you are not helping others, what is it you are doing?” He hears those words.

As Tyrone Geter’s reputation as one of this country’s finer draftsmen continues to grow, as it will, there will be those who inevitably and fairly link him with precedents: the monumental drawings of Charles White, the stark frontality of Chuck Close, the meshing of media a la Robert Rauschenberg. Such comparisons will be useful inasmuch as they help us position Geter within the flow of art history of which he is a part.

But such comparisons and informed estimations will not substitute for the direct experience of his work. By engaging us with scale, skill and grace of line, Geter makes us see that he never was much interested in copying anyone. His obsession with communication and with the endless possibilities of the face and figure led him to learn how to describe it. His passion for form led him to collage paper onto his drawings to make them fuller, more expansive, more three-dimensional. His symbols grew physically out of his immersion in this country and its eccentric censure African Americans. Tyrone Geter would become his own person and his own artist, but a person and an artist deeply connected to his time and place and to the people around him. Art would never be entertainment, it would be a proud mirror, a graphic life jacket, a voice in support of the grace and goodness of every life.

At the time of this writing, the art of Tyrone Geter declares its relevance and its communicative power precisely because the need for such a declaration is, at present, so strong and so clear.