David Shrobe: Natural Sovereignty at Monique Meloche Gallery

David Shrobe, Transition Mode, 2023. Oil, acrylic, charcoal, faux plant, silk, wool, printed paper, suede, linen, leather, painted canvas, on 13 joined wood panels. 71 x 58 x 2 in

moniquemeloche presents David Shrobe: Natural Sovereignty, the artist’s second solo exhibition with the gallery, February 3March 16. Through assemblage, collage, drawing, and painting, the works on view draw from oral histories, family portraits, and online archives to present the vitality of family life among Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Pulling from the past to project new possibilities of the future, Shrobe considers the backyard and garden as an extension of the home and a site of sustenance, survival, and resistance.

Natural Sovereignty is the last body of work created in the artist’s longtime studio in Harlem, NY. Next month, the artist will vacate his studio in the apartment that has housed his family for nearly a century. Slices of the domestic materialize through found objects such as tabletops, doors, molding, mirror frames, wood flooring, and textiles. The artist collects these objects over long periods of time–often found within the surrounding blocks near his building–filling every corner of his studio. In a process driven by intuition, Shrobe’s labor-intensive practice reflects the cultural tapestry woven by his ancestral predecessors. Layered hand carved wood panels frame the narrative and create the push and pull of exterior and interior realities. The figures within Shrobe’s liminal spaces seamlessly integrate with their natural and cosmic environments, depicting everyday family life amongst growers and traditional healers. As we glimpse into the landscape of flora and fauna, we see the backyard as a sanctuary, a space of work, pride, wellness, and leisure. For the artist, they are spaces for self-governance, community, and legacy; worlds that return us to the natural sovereignty of the human being.

Inspired by bell hooks’ reflection on photography, several of Shrobe’s assemblage paintings are drawn from turn of the century photographs of Black and Indigenous Americans, representing autonomy for people of color and a declaration of their presence. The camera and photography, as described by hooks, offered African Americans a way to empower themselves through counterhegemonic representation and offered the possibility of immediate intervention. In Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, hooks writes: “photography has been and is central to that aspect of decolonization that calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds.” Shrobe’s works serve as declarations, depicting families in their complete humanity, in harmony with the natural environment. While the artist also recalls his own family photos as a starting point, his subjects as well as the materials used undergo a transformation, becoming generative of new meanings and inviting a set of associations and experiences of the familiar or uncanny in each work. Female figures in the works often represent the women in his family, while other characters embody the artist with similar tendencies or dispositions yet exist in another reality.

Natural Sovereignty showcases the artist’s process of image making and its essential connection to pictorial genealogies. By rendering his figures in nature, Shrobe suggests that our complete freedom survives within our inherent connection to each other and the natural world; that we may find oneness by planting our feet in the ground.

David Shrobe’s work is currently included in the group exhibition Multiplicity: Blackness in Contemporary American Collage, which originated at the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, TN from September 15–December 23, 2023 and travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX from February 18–May 12, 2024, followed by the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., from July 6–September 22, 2024.

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