It seems like a natural pairing that Raleigh based visual artist André Leon Gray would be involved with the upcoming Art of Cool Fest. Though this is a festival based on the desire to expand the audience for jazz-influenced music, Gray’s works are deeply rooted in and build upon African American history much like the origination and development of jazz. This is evident in his current exhibition A Nation Under Our Feet at the Durham 21c Hotel. I asked Gray about these associations to history and his involvement with Art of Cool Fest.
Your work is drawn from history and has many connections to the past, yet often deals with contemporary social issues. Can you speak a bit about your process as an artist?
Current issues will be related to some policy or action that happened not only just yesterday, but even decades or hundreds of years ago. For example, in my work, Masters of the Game, it examines how psychological and spiritual warfare during slavery has morphed into the dumbing down of public education and the proliferation of the prison industrial complex. I’ll watch various news sources and notice that mass media has become the disseminator of what will be remembered and forgotten. If something stands out, I will write it down and save that information to possibly be included for a new project.
You’re going to be serving on a panel with The Art of Cool during the festival. What will be the focus of the panel and how do you perceive your role in the discussions.
The panel discussion will be about ARTivism, and what it means to each member of the panel. I know that music and visual art can be catalysts for social change, depending on the vision of the messenger. My artwork is akin to Fela Kuti’s message, “Music is the weapon of the future.” I chose art as my weapon to battle artificial barriers created to impose a global socioeconomic hierarchy on people. It’s commonly known as racism.
The Art of Cool supports programs in the musical arts, how does it relate to you as a visual artist and/or how did you become involved with the organization?
I have done several art workshops and residencies at local schools and community centers through Artspace, Visual Art Exchange, and the United Arts Council in Raleigh, which have educational outreach programs. I have attended various events by The Art of Cool, mainly in Raleigh, so I was familiar with the organization. I was contacted by Michael English, who was putting together the panel discussion after viewing my artwork at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham. This is my first time working with the group.
What parallels or crossovers do you see between what you do as an artist and The Art of Cool?
The Art of Cool, according to their website, says that it “strives to cross artistic, economic and social boundaries to bring together a diverse mix of people, cultures, experiences and creativity.” My artwork is presented mostly in educational institutions or non-profit spaces lead by great visionary people who strive to expose a diverse audience to thought-provoking, mind unraveling images. I am preserving a tradition of creative expression that has been genetically passed down to me. It is my duty to honor my ancestors and keep that tradition alive, just like jazz is American classical music which needs to be preserved as well.