Inspired by fatherhood, Jamal Thorne explores what it means to raise a Black boy and be a Black man
Jamal Thorne’s intricate mixed-media artworks are collages of color, paint and tape exploring themes of trauma, race and memory. Throughout his career, Thorne has frequently pulled on history and current events depicting snippets from the Civil Rights Movement and instances of police brutality. The artist had a specific direction and vision for his work.
When he found out he would be a father, everything changed.
“The thing that came up was fear. And it wasn’t fear of having or not having enough to provide,” says Thorne. “I’m afraid of my son having to experience a lot of the same things that I experienced, growing up … how I needed to maneuver and move throughout through the world for safety reasons.”
Thorne had spent years working through his trauma and identity as a Black man in his artwork, but when faced with the thought of raising a Black son in a world hostile to him, the societal hoops Thorne had been jumping through took on a whole new light.
This new perspective of fatherhood is on full display in Thorne’s exhibition “Freeze Tag Hustlers Gang,” on view at Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Coolidge Corner through Oct. 15. The exhibition features a series of new mixed-media collage pieces exploring the inner work Thorne is doing in his new role as a father.
The works are titled with court-case terms like “Co-Defendant No. 3” and “Exhibit A.” Famous figures like Chadwick Boseman, Nipsey Hustle and others appear in the works, at times obscured almost to the point of anonymity. These are representations of Black men who have been exceptional, who have subverted society’s expectations and achieved artistic greatness, using whatever means necessary.
“You aren’t supposed to have made it this far,” says Thorne. “This system is set up and built in such a way that, my god, like, when you think about the odds, it seems miraculous that people like Jay-Z have managed to get to where they are.”
Over time, Thorne’s work has expanded in scale and shape, emerging from the more rectangular, contained structure of his earlier pieces to the wide-ranging organic works shown in “Freeze Tag Hustlers Gang.”
Thorne has been making art since the age of 15, when he operated under the graffiti tag “Peace.” The Maryland native graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in fine art and received a master’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Art and Northeastern University. He now works at Northeastern as a professor of art and design. Despite this impressive resume, Thorne says it was Praise Shadows Art Gallery owner Yng-Ru Chen who helped him step into his formal identity as artist while they collaborated at Kingston Gallery in 2019.
“Freeze Tag Hustlers Gang” compares the challenges of Black manhood to a game of freeze tag. In the game, if you’re “tagged,” then you’re out or you can’t move. In real life, an inequitable justice system, emotional and physical violence, generational trauma, underfunded public systems and other consequences of systemic racism can all “tag” a Black man and freeze his life permanently. The exhibition begs viewers to keep those structures in mind. Freeze tag may be fun and games, but in the larger world the baggage is heavy and the stakes are high.
“We have a tendency to oversimplify the character of a person, the identity of a person,” says Thorne. “It takes a lot of practice to try to see somebody for the different complex layers that create them, rather than just under the surface level. But once you start seeing a person for the things that they’ve had to endure, that opens up the door for empathy.”