Sedrick Chisom Visualises America Post-Apocalypse
Eleven large paintings and charcoal drawings of plague-stricken people and apocalyptic scenes hang against grey-washed walls at Pilar Corrias, forming Sedrick Chisom's debut London exhibition, Twenty Thousand Years of Fire and Snow (15 July–20 August 2021).
Sedrick Chisom, Medusa Wandered the Wetlands of the Capital Citadel Undisturbed by Two Confederate Drifters Preoccupied by Poisonous Vapors that Stirred in the Night Air (2021). Oil, acrylic, spray paint, and watercolour pencil on tiled sheets of paper glued to canvas. 151.6 x 208.3 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.
For these recent works, Chisom draws on the tradition of Afrofuturist speculative fiction that reimagines Black people into an existence that reunites ancestral pasts through the prism of speculative space travel: a post-emancipatory movement reclaiming ownership over Black identity free from white supremacy.
Such positions include writer Walter Mosley, whose fascination with science fiction, 'a main artery for recasting our imagination', is rooted in the fact that anything 'can be written and made possible.'1
Chisom extends Mosley's point. Rather than depicting Black people in a future world in outer space or beneath the sea (in homage to Drexciya), he explores the earth they have elected to leave behind.
This new world is inhabited by white people who have succumbed to a contagious disease that has divided them into two opposed groups: a monstrous one and another undergoing transformation, both assertive of their own superiority, which pits them at war with each other.
The figures in some of Chisom's paintings and drawings walk in speculative and imagined landscapes. In The Hero of Dionysus Emerged Inching Through Umbrage (2020), whose title is a nod to the Greek god of wine, a nude figure with purple-tinted flesh emerges from a polluted swamp-like landscape that seems to have killed off all other signs of life. Vegetation is wilted, brown, and decaying, and water is a contaminated blue-green.
Invoking another figure from Greek mythology is Medusa Wandered the Wetlands of the Capital Citadel Undisturbed by Two Confederate Drifters Preoccupied by Poisonous Vapors that Stirred in the Night Air (2021).
Chisom's images strongly recall Octavia Butler's apocalyptic vision of America in Parable of the Sower (1993): a narrative confronting the global industrial complex...
A monster resembling Medusa, complete with snakes for hair, turns away from a group of figures in a boat about to dock on a purple and red shore illuminated by a flame-red sky. The colours make it difficult to separate the figures from a landscape of utter devastation.
Engulfed in a sea of reds, purples, and oranges, The Occidental Tower The Capitol Citadel of The Alt-Rightland was Naturally Situated Over a Lake of Fire (2021) directly references Pieter Breugel's The Tower of Babel (c. 1563) as well as, per Chisom's words, 'the Antebellum period, the southern US and wider ideas about civilizations (former empires) in decline.'
The painting directly responds to the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol by Trump supporters, and shows the U.S. Capitol as a deserted and degraded Tower of Babel crowned with a burning cross. 'I started thinking about a world where there'd been a mass exodus of POC's', Chisom notes on the work. 'A future where the U.S. is technically and culturally eroded.'
The hues and tones of Chisom's paintings are also influenced by the artist's interest in thermal vision imagery, where pictures emerge from heat not visible light, mapping out bodies by their temperature variations into a greyscale image, using brighter and darker shades of grey to represent hotter and cooler temperatures.
Beyond painting, the two black and white works on paper The Wholly Avoidable Death of Mighty Whitey, The Last Drunk Dionysian Hero, AKA The Wholly Tragic Birth of Fragile Narcissus and Medusa's Convenant With The Lord of the Woods (both 2020) demonstrate the depth of skill of Chisom's drawing process.
The former depicts a ghostly muscular nude figure inflicting a wound on their own abdomen centred in a landscape suggestive of flames and water (hellfire depictions come to mind). The latter shows an elevated Medusa, the female gorgon from Greek mythology, her naked body partially shrouded by flames.
Chisom has stated previously that his approach unfolds from a continuous dream narrative, weaving Black speculative traditions that reimagine time and use cultural histories to critique cultural realities, with references ranging from film stills, Victorian illustration, Goya prints, American civil war photography, Medieval painting, Black culture, and so on.2
The artist's evocative titles add another layer of meaning and connection among deeply loaded works that contend with race and otherness through the lens of speculative fiction.3 In Medusa's Covenant With The Lord of the Woods, Medusa rises as if born of (grey) flames, majestic and winged but reinforcing her notoriety as a petrifying force whose gaze is capable of turning anyone into stone.
Fear of contagion, race as construct, and environmental degradation resonate with contemporary concerns of a post-pandemic and post-racial future still outside of current imaginaries.
With that in mind, Chisom's images strongly recall Octavia Butler's apocalyptic vision of America in Parable of the Sower (1993): a narrative confronting the global industrial complex rooted in patriarchal white supremacy, which has produced a deeply fractured society governed by outright violence against indigenous and non-white populations. Chisom visualises the aftermath of that world's collapse. —[O]
1 Mark Bould, 'The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF', Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 34, no. 2, 2007, pp. 177–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4241520. Accessed 4 August 2021.
2 'Interview with Sedrick Chisom', Pilar Corrias, 14 May 2020, https://www.pilarcorrias.com/news/7-interview-with-sedrick-chisom/
3 Chisom has spoken about titling ' maintaining a certain order within the paintings and establishing relationships between paintings.' See 'Interview with Sedrick Chisom', Pilar Corrias, 14 May 2020.