Interview: Artist Turiya Adkins at “Helmut Lang Seen By Antwaun Sargent: YOBWOC”

The multi-disciplinary talent outlines her powerful contribution to a recent group show

Multi-disciplinary Black artist Turiya Adkins is perhaps best known for her powerful works that explore a connection between Black track and field athletes and the historic Great Migration across the US. Stemming from that body of work, Adkins displayed the painting “As Not Without Aim” during the Helmut Lang Seen By Antwaun Sargent: YOBWOC exhibition at NYC’s Hannah Traore Gallery. The show—which also included work by Awol Erizku, Justen Leroy, Devin B Johnson, Daniel Obasi and Quay Quinn Wolf—explored and expanded upon the cliche of the cowboy. The prevailing stereotype of the cowboy, a white man riding a horse on open plains, erases Black individuals (around 25% of cowboys between the 1860s and 1880s were Black) from the lore. Through photography, sculpture, painting and more, the artists involved in YOBWOC expanded, recontextualized and reimagined the Wild West. As part of the relaunch of The Standard Talks series, we spoke with Adkins to discuss her thought-provoking work.

Image of Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, Turiya Adkins, Hannah Traore, Antwaun Sargent, courtesy of BFA

Tell us a little bit about where your work centered on track and field came from.

For the past little while, I’ve been doing a series about track and field. It kind of all came from this video I saw a long time ago of Mike Powell jumping, beating Bob Beamon’s 23-year long jump record. Mike Powell jumped 29 feet and 4.5 inches [setting a new world record]. What I took from that video was kind of the otherworldly nature of Black people, specifically in the domain of track and field.

After that, I kind of got obsessed with track for a little bit, did some research, and then in my final year of college at Dartmouth, I started making work around track and field and trying to relate it to the Great Migration, thinking about the poetic significance of the domination of Black people in track and field and what that has to do with history of Jim Crow laws, the Fugitive Slave Act, forced migration and migration. That’s kind of where I’ve been working from for the last little bit.

Image of Turiya Adkins, courtesy of BFA

How has that come to life in your pieces?

I really like to use a mix of recognizable figures through means of printmaking and collage, and contrast them with abstraction. I came to that through feeling both invisible and hyper-visible as a Black woman. I kind of attributed action to a feeling of invisibility; and the more representational collage figures, elements from the track and field magazines, and research that I’ve collected over time to represent the more hyper-visible aspect of being a Black woman. I think a lot of my work is kind of focused on the corner where abstraction and figuration meet. That’s not to say that I’m a figurative artist or think of myself as a figurative artist.

Courtesy of BFA

You worked with Julie Mehetru as her studio assistant. Can you tell us more about that and how it might have influenced you?

What I find really interesting is her ability to speak with her mark-making. I think what’s so honorable about her practice, and what I’ve learned to understand a little more and gotten to witness, is her ability to create a language with her mark-making and refine this language and use this language in order to represent different kinds of issues or happenings politically and otherwise.

It’s been really great to have such a front-row seat to witness how she’s able to work from conception to completion. I definitely have learned a lot in terms of process and sitting back, kind of marinating in the work and then deciding what the next step would be.

Courtesy of Helmut Lang

What is your process like? Are there certain things that help spark inspiration or motivation?

A big part of it is music. I have really bad ADHD. The kind of stimulation that I get from listening to music—kind of all the time, you really won’t see me without my headphones on—is definitely a big inspiration as well as part of my research. I really consider my practice research-based. I’m always reading, looking for new articles. I think a big part of what goes into my work is the history and the culture behind track and field, and just trying to relate track and field to a lot of other things that maybe don’t seem so obvious. But these things have a kind of metaphorical connection to Black people running and what that means in terms of cultural memory, like ancestral memory.

Courtesy of BFA

How did you get connected with Antwaun Sargent and decide how to approach your work for the show?

The first time I met Antwaun, it was actually at the closing party for Julie’s show at the Whitney. It’s all kind of connected. But then I ended up meeting who Antwaun designated as his right-hand man, Diallo Simon Point, at the after-party for Lauren Halsey’s opening, where Lauryn Hill performed. We connected over our fan-girling over Lauryn Hill and getting to see her perform in person, both of us for the first time. I had a studio visit with Diallo, which led to him hitting me up and asking if I would consider being a part of the show. At first, he mentioned that it was about cowboys and the iconic Helmut Lang cowboy T-shirt. I knew very quickly about how I would relate my practice to cowboys because it’s something that I had thought about before.

I took an art history class in college all about Westward Expansion and how that was documented through art, through landscape painting in particular. At that time, one of the essays that I wrote was about the participation in Westward Expansion of Black cowboys and why they exist, how they got the jobs. I think what I found similar was the way Black cowboys subvert this more traditional view of cowboys. It related to me in a similar way to how especially Black women track stars challenged the traditional understanding of athletic American identity.

They wanted each artist to interpret the theme on their own and relate it to their own practice, which I thought was really special. The way that they did it, the artists that they picked, I think it ended up being a very cohesive show and very fascinating because we all are kind of coming from different angles and sides, but meeting at the same place. Antwaun was definitely kind of the composer of this union of all these artists.

Courtesy of BFA

Is there anything specific you hope will resonate with viewers of your work?

I think that my work (especially the work in the Helmut Lang show and the works that have more figurative elements in them) would resonate with a Black audience a little faster because of this cultural memory that I feel we have to running—having to run, running to or for or from something. In a broader sense, what I want people to take away is that what I love about running is that I think it’s a direct representation of strife. You’re pushing yourself. It’s not a team sport. You’re kind of fighting with yourself and looking to beat yourself.

I think that relates to me because I’ve always been really hard on myself in all of my endeavors. It’s definitely paid off in some ways, but it has been a hindrance in other ways. What I want people to take away from the work is an equal understanding of this kind of strife that I think that track and field represent. I approach that by working slowly and working in layers and navigating a lot of these different elements in a lot of different ways and trying to dwindle down and refine this language (similar to Julie’s language) that I create. It might only be decipherable to me, but that I hope resonates with other people like I intend it to.

Hero image of “Cowboy,” courtesy of Turiya Adkins