“I am always thinking through social and political structures that can both disenfranchise or empower people, and seeing works by these artists help to remind me how we are all embedded in global networks of power, privilege, and oppression.”
Chiffon Thomas, a Chicago interdisciplinary artist, tells Vacant Mag’s editor-in-chief, Lui Val, about identity, the insane past year, and how it is like to navigate through the scene as young artists. Currently, Thomas is exhibiting their solo exhibition 'Antithesis' at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles.
Your work investigates themes like existence and identity, how’s your perception of the “impossible body” changed over this crazy last year?
I feel like this year reinforced or has been a reiteration of things that are interconnected to the themes I investigate in my work. The precariousness of people of color, the precariousness of people who do not quite fit into the categories of normativity. People and communities being heavily impacted by death at a disproportionate rate due to lack of resources, safety and treatment. We can see that happening yearly amongst individuals who suffer economically, but this year in particular, the Covid 19 virus allowed the world to really have a focused lens on these issues as the number of deaths and unemployment begin to increase so rapidly. Things are very sensitive, but things have always been sensitive according to the communities I came from. It was no surprise to me that we saw an uproar of protests, looting, riots, political and social divisions, surge in immigration, violence, police brutality…there is a familiarity for me with these issues from as early as I can remember. I believe the “impossible body” is still very charged in our everyday lives and some of us wear and live within that body throughout our entire lifetime. The body and the mind gets tired after so long and there is a limit to suffering, but fighting also can prolong suffering if needs are never met. The “impossible body” is something that is continuous and is contingent with reality.
Navigating through the art scene must be an odyssey. Where do you visualize yourself in the future?
Honestly, I really don't know. I try to make it through a single day and manage each day by doing my best and being grateful for the things I have. Sometimes I can’t accomplish everything I want and I’ve come to accept that things don't always go as planned. I know that I can’t control all parts of life, so I try to be as present as possible and control what can and avoid plunging too deeply into future possibilities.
I’m very focused and invested in the idea of making art to manage life and to process life. I find that processing information and expressing my understanding of emotions and experiences through a visual language, allows me to connect with others in a nonverbal way. I love that approach to communicating and sharing with another because you have this ability to relate to someone and exchange on a subconscious level and create space for emotional depth. If there is anything I look towards in the future, I hope to always have the ability to make art.
We assume you find some kind of connection between the techniques you use and the discourse within your artwork. Would you say your selection of materials comes from a place of comfort or defiance?
I think my approach to technique and material selection lives somewhere in a liminal space or in-between comfort and defiance. My approaches to making provide a space of solace in the act of reclaiming objects, structures, mediums or techniques that allow me to reconfigure or reinterpret ideas. The ideas that I am constructing through material often come from moments of introspection, internalized trauma, things that are external or witnessed or experienced in the world around me. I often find material that can speak to the foundations of cognition based upon social constructivism.
You were born in Chicago, what’s the relationship between your artwork and your origins?
My work is greatly influenced by my upbringing in Chicago. I lived on the Southside of Chicago my entire upbringing and I saw a lot of things that made me question the quality of life amongst the communities I was raised within. I try to stay focused on the mundane moments while growing up in Chicago, which I feel create a lot of beauty in my life. Something as simple as walking from the bus stop home after coming from school. There are certain aesthetic choices that I make, which are influenced by me living in a metropolitan city. Sometimes I am very drawn to ruins and concrete textures, decay, abandoned or demolished spaces, underpasses, highways, public transportation, rail systems, street art, hip hop culture, dance culture, things that reverberate through my memory. I think Chicago subconsciously drives my interests in tactile material and allows me to investigate domestic life and familial bonds.
We consider ourselves the next counter-culture magazine in Mexico. Have you ever visited?
I have not had the opportunity to visit, but my friend Victoria Martinez, who is also an artist often speaks about her experience visiting the pyramids in Palenque, Chiapas. I really find these incredible structures that hold centuries of history and ancestry to be so fascinating and would love to experience that space someday.
What is your view on Mexican & Latinx art scenes?
I’ve been seeing some very inspiring works by contemporary Mexican & LatinX artists and peers who are presenting rich and complex social, political, and art histories while also engaging with contemporary discourses and experiences. For example, works by Felipe Baeza who addresses elements of desire within queer relations by fussing the body with plants as symbols of growth and new forms of life. I think that his imagery and use of material is incredibly poetic and inspiring. Jose de Jesus Rodriguez, who I graduated with from Yale is a painter I also admire as he is able to depict moments of domesticity, culture and the Chicanx experience in America. Jose’s ability to compose iconic symbolism into everyday life creates feelings of nostalgia for me that are cross-cultural. I'm also greatly inspired by artists like Ana Mendieta, Belkis Ayón, and Frida Kahlo just to name a few.
In my own practice, I am always thinking through social and political structures that can both disenfranchise or empower people, and seeing works by these artists help to remind me how we are all embedded in global networks of power, privilege, and oppression.