Yashua Klos is a visual artist who hails from Chicago, but currently resides in New York City. His works, which focus on Black male identity, consist of collages, woodblock prints, etchings, and installations. He has been featured in the New York Times and Essence Magazine. Art Editor, Matt Fayoyin spoke with him via email in February 2011.
Matt Fayoyin: Before diving into this year's theme of reconciliation, could you give us some background of who you are, personally and professionally?
Yashua Klos: Well, I've been drawing ever since I was in a high chair. I was identified as an artist very early on by my mother and my community so it's the only thing I can say I have always known that I was. The more I make art work, the more I get to study those things that are really important to me personally.
Professionally, I am both an artist and art teacher. While being an artist for me means a lot of self centered time, teaching demands a lot of giving. I've found that I cannot have one without the other.
MF: That is really amazing that those around you knew so early in your life what you had the ability to be. Well, what does the term of reconciliation mean to you? Does it show up in your work, and if so, in what ways?
YK: If reconciliation is about 'making compatible or consistent after estrangement or conflict,' I would say my work is about reconciling 'identity', yet arriving at no conclusion. My work portrays the act of reconciling a 'black male' identity, in a community where constructive 'father figures' were rare. In this sense 'reconciliation' as a result never occurs in my work, the conflict is never resolved. What does emerge is an 'unsettled' and vulnerable identity- born through the struggle of reconciliation. 'Consistent' or 'compatible' it is not. Hopefully it is exciting, vulnerable, and shifting.
MF: Wow, I feel as though that really is a complex and rarely told story of reconciling black male identity. It's amazing to see it told in such a creative way. While in art school, you trained in Italian Renaissance oil painting and studied for six months in the South of France. However, you closely identify with Chicago, in particular the Southside, a place you have described as having a militant determination to undo Black Americans' "dishevelment from slavery" and reclaim its own culture. How have you reconciled or created compatibility with this established art tradition of Europe and the vastly different Southside Chicago?
YK: This story is rarely told from a perspective that acknowledges its own culturally specific environmental causes for this identity construction. The absent father figures in lower income black communities spawn a desperate construction of 'maleness' by young boys. In its desperation, this constructed identity is inherently fallible and fragile. I try to tell it in a way that makes it more than being about notions of 'blackness' or 'maleness'. I hope ultimately the work reflects a humanity. Humans who cross culture, geography, and time have always believed we can be more.
MF: This construction of identity amongst black males you talk about leads nicely into this next question about hip hop and its influence over the aforementioned demographic. I read that you have somewhat of a disenchantment with hip hop at this point. But you say that your art can sometimes venerate the genre of music while still showing your cynicism. I would have to say that I do notice these two attitudes in "AL-MI-TY" and "They Came Like Thieves in the Night" in particular. Do your depictions of a culture so influenced by hip hop in your work prove therapeutic and reconciliatory to the music form, or is it more of a reluctant acceptance of its importance to these characters in your pieces of art?
YK: That's a great question! I think I agree that Al-MI-TY is my clearest example of me reconciling the influence that hip hop has on black male identity. I wanted that piece to be both disturbing and seductive in its power. The influence of hip hop imagery is global and undeniable in the way it has established a world view of young African American men, yet as a boy I also remember modeling myself after those images, for better and for worse.
MF: You have used so many mediums to produce your wonderful art. From paintings, to recycled materials, to photorealism, to woodblock prints . . . just really incredible. Thanks to you, I learned of the historical importance of woodblock prints for African American artists. What inspired you to begin work in woodblock prints? And, what sorts of decisions inform your media choices?
YK: Around 2003, I was hanging out at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, and I mentioned my admiration for the work of Charles White. Well Charles White was once a big guy at the SSCAC, and the director of the place opened a safe and plucked out a Charles White woodblock print-I was amazed!!! It had this socialist proletariat vibe and it was impeccably done! I had seen woodblock prints in art history books from Japan, but at that moment I knew I wanted to try it myself. My work still has that socialist kind of feel from White and the Chicago muralists. I just grew up around that kind of politico-aesthetic.
MF: That sounds very, very cool. Well, I was reading a New York Times article that discussed your work along with several other young emerging artists from whom they are expecting big things. The article's mention of your use and focus on the large heads in your work immediately reminded me of old Yoruba sculptures in which the head is disproportionately large when compared to the rest of the shortened body. For the Yoruba, this focus on an enlarged head represents the unseen importance of a head as the life force and destiny of an individual. In your "Banners" series, I see this sense of destiny in these characters' faces. And in a lot of your work there is only a head, no body. Why do you focus on the head so often in your work?
YK: Yeah that's interesting. I've noticed that in the Yoruba figures. In the 'Banners' series I was prioritizing the face as the main identifier of each figure; so they were portraits in that sense. Also their facial expressions revealed the different attitudes toward the pose they were making. With the collage work I'm using these heads like Mount Rushmore uses likeness of founding fathers or like the Olmecs made heads that we view as markers of their physicality, strength, and presence. There's something there about a disembodiment that I'm starting to explore too. Something about being severed from one's roots.
MF: Wow, I see that in the pieces you have given to Mandala Journal, and I cannot wait to see that theme in your future work. Are the subjects of your art actual people?
YK: They start from photo references of people but I don't commit to making them portraits- so I'm pushing their abstraction lately, actually.
MF: Cool. Well, I saw that you were a part of an interesting discussion which connects to our journal's theme. This past Fall, you and several other artists were asked to comment on the French 19th century artist, Jean-Julien Dentil's series of panels, which showed an idealized America, and the implications this piece of art contributed to the idea of social democracy in this nation. You come from, and draw deep connections to, an area in Chicago historically denied any real piece of the American dream, let alone social democracy. How do you think reconciliation can begin to be made between this present reality and that past idealism?
YK: Well, that's a huge question so I'm gonna take you up on the 'where reconciliation can begin' part! I think social justice that is all inclusive is really based on our evolution as a species. With an increasingly global and integrated world- I think our survival depends upon reconciliation. For example -currently we are reconciling our attitudes about religion versus justice in the Middle East, or our relationship to sustainable eco-friendly living resources. These things we are realizing affect us all eventually and we must reconcile them for our continued survival on this planet. Those Utopian French images you mentioned were portraying a society that evolved out of choice. Our reality is more desperate. We are seeing that we do not have a choice, and our primal need for survival allows us to reconcile our primal fears. Maybe I'm sounding like a preacher right now so I'll back away from the soap box, but you see what I mean?
MF: Yes, I do. So, we at the Art staff love the class picture of the "three year old" you on your website. What fond memories do you have of that time? And what made you use the photo on your website?
YK: Glad you enjoy the class photo. Check out Mrs. Peaches in the back. She was not smiling at all! I used to have a caption on my site that said 'Mrs. Peaches always said I was her brightest student!" That is, of course, more about my 'high yellow' complexion than my aptitude. My favorite album, Nas' Illmatic has a kid photo of himself, as does Biggie Smalls' Ready To Die album. I think I liked the image of the artist before we are capable of processing the world they way we do when older. At one point I also considered adding the caption "Can you find me? Hint: Artists wear turtlenecks."
MF: Haha! Hilarious. I might have to take your idea for my next Facebook profile. Well, thank you so much for your time. We are very excited to include your work, and this conversation in the journal. It really has been a pleasure talking to you.
Matt Fayoyin is a Health Promotion major and African Literature and Language minor from Savannah, Georgia. He is in love with The Sartorialist blog, music, Arsenal FC, and public health. He hopes to one day work within public health to improve low-income and underserved populations' health.