The world is not necessarily a kind place, says multimedia artist Johannes Barfield, suggesting that there were obstacles to overcome between his childhood artistic ambitions and the studio space he currently occupies as a visual arts fellow at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center. But not once in an hour and a half of discussing his life and work would this reserved man, whose art is rooted in his own personal history of growing up black in the South, disclose what those obstacles were. He remains guarded.
Barfield was born and raised as an only child in Winston-Salem, N.C. His mother headed the city’s Red Cross disaster services department, and his father was an independent long-distance freight hauler. The young Barfield would sometimes accompany one of his parents to a disaster zone or ride shotgun cross-country with his father. His early memories of being on the road with his parents gave him such a strong sense of freedom that he titled one of his earlier pieces with a line by the rapper Common, Who Freed Me, Lincoln or Cadillac?
He has an M.F.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University in photography and film. Now, during his seven-month residency in Provincetown, Barfield is diving deep into childhood memories, creating work in various media for both his solo show at FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery, which opens this Friday, and an exhibit in September at Mary S. Byrd Gallery of Art at Augusta University in Georgia.
For both shows, his inspirations are family, memory, and cars — cars representing freedom and also the danger of being pulled over and having a gun put in your face. Barfield is using canvas, paint, asphalt (for the road and blackness), joint compound (for institutions), college-ruled paper, wheat paste (the adhesive of choice for street artists), images printed on a low-end office printer for a low-tech feel, and iron-rich red dirt he brought from North Carolina, the aggregate of which becomes one of his new pieces. He’s also including audio and video in the FAWC show. Another definition of “aggregate” is that it’s a construction material used in building roads, which is certainly apt. When Barfield was a child, before he wanted to be an artist, he dreamed of being an archaeologist, sifting through layers of past cultures in order to understand them. That practice carries over into his adult work.
His layered pieces start with a central image — his mother in a car, or the cartoon character Marge Simpson during a fit of road rage, racially ambiguous with her blue Afro. The images are printed on ruled paper, the paper then attached to the canvas with the wheat paste and smeared with the joint compound. Then it appears as if the asphalt and red dirt have been hurled at the image, obscuring most of its original meaning or context. It is up to the viewer to be an archaeologist, to sift through the layers, through the blackness, to see and experience Barfield’s past. The process of remembering is itself key: it’s as if he is inviting the viewer to experience what it’s like for him to go through all of that concealment, through all those layers that shroud his memory.
Barfield explains that with these materials he’s trying to express a complex emotion. “It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it’s not melancholy — it’s all of those things intertwined,” he says. “I’m trying to focus beyond binaries and more on tertiary, a place that is in-between, a space that embodies all of those feelings, collapsing those feelings, creating an intersectionality, looking beyond good and bad.”
Although there are artists of color who wish to be identified simply as artists, without their race or ethnicity attached to the label, Barfield is not one of them.
“Those individuals are fine for their path,” he says. “They are individuals who may have encountered discrimination, all types of things to hold them in place from being able to progress, or they’re people who don’t want to be pigeonholed in this subcategory. I am very prideful, and being black is definitely a part of me. It’s not something I’d want to deny or put in the background. I don’t want to hide my face. Being a black artist in America means you’re already an obscurity. There are so many people who came before you who don’t look like you.”
For Barfield, being forthright about race is essential. “I just want to be true to myself,” he says. “How I feel and my experiences — and being able to share that part of my truth — is the only thing I feel comfortable with and what I’d want to project.”
The event: Opening of an exhibit of work by visual arts fellow Johannes Barfield
The time: Friday, Feb. 21, 6-8 p.m.
The place: Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown
The cost: Free