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Surviving in a surrealist canvas

Alexandria Smith’s first Boston solo show explores the black female experience

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

“A Litany for Survival,” Alexandria Smith’s first solo show in Boston, hangs at Boston University’s Stone Gallery through Jan. 27. Titled for the Audre Lord poem of the same name, the exhibition explores black female subjectivity and politicization. Using dark tones, doubling and mostly large-scale canvases, Smith illustrates the interior of the black female experience in a beautiful, surrealist manner.

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Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in illustration from Syracuse University, a master’s degree in art education from New York University and a master’s of fine arts in painting and drawing from Parsons. She’s also the co-organizer of the collective Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. She currently lives and works between Brooklyn and Wellesley. On Nov. 15, at 6 p.m. Smith will be moderating a panel at the Stone Gallery exploring black female subjectivity.

In her piece “The Nocturnes” Smith depicts two mirrored figures facing one another. The figures are made up almost entirely of black hair with large breasts sticking out from underneath and thick thighs for good measure. These figures are made up of the elements of a black woman that the world sees, rather than what’s really there. Heavily lidded eyes stare out at the viewer from both figures, or perhaps both sides of the same figure, as if to say, “Really?”

Many backgrounds of the paintings are in dark colors. The exhibition pallet is black, gray and moody purple. The interior spaces where the characters live feel almost prison-like, a complex labyrinth of patterns and shapes that forbids the figures from mobility. These spaces are as constricting as the figurative boxes black women are put into.

“Through amorphous, hybrid characters, I obsessively deconstruct images of the female body: legs, hands and pigtail,” says Smith in her artist statement. “The abstract tableaux created are a fictional, coming of age narrative that represents bodies in flux and brings up complicated notions of identity, gender, sexuality and psychology.” The mirroring creates the effect of two halves of the same figure inspecting itself. Where does a young girl go when her hair is depicted everywhere like horns and her feet and curves are emphasized more than, or instead of, her self-worth?

In “The Institutionists” two mirrored figures stare into each other’s eyes, foreheads pressed together, boring a hole into each other’s soul in hopes of finding answers. In contrast, the dual figures in “A Rigamortis Paradise” don’t have eyes to look at each other, or heads for that matter. They’re merely headless bodies posed rigidly against each other, not allowed thought or movement of their own.

Smith’s work grapples with complex questions the way women grapple for identity in a world constantly imposing labels and restrictions. Though the content is powerful and at times political, the painting style is surreal and often whimsical.  There is always more to see in the worlds of these canvases. 

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