April Bey, detail view of You Told Harpo to Beat Me, 2022. Woven tapestry with hand-sewn fabric and sequins, Chinese knockoff pearls. 80 x 60 inches. 
April Bey’s practice is grounded in the fundamental truth that systems and attitudes don’t need to be the way they are. Through both her striking aesthetic and her conceptual approach, Bey breaks down the false limitations set by the visual arts and society; she expands, melts, and redefines categories and mediums. And in Atlantica, these convictions come to life.
Atlantica is a world imagined by Bey, and it tends to be the setting of her solo exhibitions, including her current show at Simon Lee. Atlantica exists in the same universe as Earth, but it is not a mirror-opposite to our planet—Atlantica simply brings out what Earth could be. Bey, who considers herself a resident of Atlantica tells Art & Object, “we don’t have citizenship, so to speak, and we don’t have passports,” but there are other stipulations; self-love is a requirement for residency, “Love [and] art creation are the power sources that the planet needs to thrive.” By Bey’s description, Atlantica is a world fueled by self-expression and personal fulfillment. It is a world that exists outside suffering—a world apart from white supremacy, ableism, homophobia, and misogyny.
April Bey, I Could Try to Walk Away Or Just Win the Game They Play, 2022.
First conceived when she was a child (though she named it later), Atlantica was used by Bey’s father to explain Earth’s oppressive systems. Inspired by the science fiction they both loved, he told Bey that they were aliens from outer space, which gave them distance from which to observe Earth’s problems. In doing so, they created an imagined home built from resistance—and full of possibility—that was not always available in her every day.
Bey spent most of her childhood in the Bahamas, a place that was vibrantly beautiful and giving, but also home to a post-colonial culture. “It’s breathtakingly beautiful everywhere. Our houses are painted Pepto Bismol pink, teal, and purple. The ocean was amazing, and growing up, we lived off of it, and what it produced,” she recalls. On the other hand, it’s “a post-colonial British country, and I grew up in the colonial school systems with corporal punishment.”
Her family ran a booze cruise and a restaurant, and she explains that growing up in the tourism industry was very traumatic. “When people go on vacation, a lot of rules that they ordinarily would follow at home go out the window. I was introduced to a lot of adult things that I should not have been introduced to. It made me dislike drinking alcohol, it made me dislike loud environments,” she says. “Also, the standard of living is a lot different for Bahamians than it is for visitors.” She points to the fact that electricity was diverted to support tourism, meaning the hotels would not experience outages, while Bahamians would go without power. Bey considers tourism a form of colonialism, and it’s something that comes up in her work—it’s also why nothing like this happens on Atlantica.
Installation view of Colonial Swag.
Installation view of Colonial Swag.
Installation view of Colonial Swag. Courtesy of TERN Gallery.
Installation view of Colonial Swag. Courtesy of TERN Gallery.
To catch a glimpse of Atlantica, all you need to do is see Bey’s work. The planet has been the site of Bey’s most recent and current exhibitions; this past summer, Bey presented Colonial Swag at TERN Gallery in Nassau, The Bahamas, and I Believe in Why I’m Here is currently on view at Simon Lee Gallery in London, England.
In Nassau, the show was titled for Colonial Swag, an Atlantican luxury fashion brand. Bey exhibited large-scale textile portraits embellished with nontraditional materials (fur, glitter, vinyl). Her incredibly labor-intensive works—striking in their texture and vibrancy—merge seemingly disparate mediums and subjects. It’s the kind of aesthetic language one might imagine for our speculative future.
Bey highlighted images of real people and friends from her community, and in the minority, there was a coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II marginalized behind glittering orange, fabric bars. It’s the image you would see in a history textbook, a queen embodying a healthful empire. It’s the image, says Bey, that would be used to teach Earth history on Atlantica.
April Bey, If I Wasn’t Me, I Can Be Sure I’d Want to Be, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.
At Simon Lee, Bey moves the conversation she began in Nassau to London, relocating her work to one of the hearts of colonialism. In I Believe in Why I’m Here, Bey transforms the space into an Atlantican world of magic. In addition to textile portraits featuring her Colonial Swag models, Bey created collages of a native Atlantican plant species that burst with leaves and Black women’s hands with acrylic nails.
Every aspect of these works is intentional, particularly the motif of the manicured hand. Bey says that she began using the acrylic nails to represent the aesthetic of Black women. “Black women pioneer…the avant-garde, and it’s often co-opted and copied, or seen as something derogatory or low rent,” she explains. So when she was conceiving the flora of Atlantica, she decided her environment would question the power dynamics inherent within that. In Atlantica, the flower or fruit of a plant is the hand. “It’s meant to elevate this image representing black women…like buying plants in a Home Depot, for example, you look for the plant thriving best. That’s the pretty thing that you hope stays alive.”
Installation view of I Believe in Why I’m Here.
Installation view of I Believe in Why I’m Here.
The overlap between Bey’s creative process and all these Atlantican details is the way Bey prioritizes her agency. Bey has consistently experimented with non-traditional mediums (including hair relaxer) in a way that reflects her conceptually interdisciplinary approach. Mixed media, just like the way she constructs her narrative, allows her to forge her own aesthetic vocabulary. As someone who occupies many different identities, Bey was looking for autonomy beyond the traditions of art academia and beyond the art world.
“The rules weren’t created for people that look like me, or even women,” she points out. “How can I keep following these rules? If it’s like oil and water, well, if you add a little bit of lemon, you can emulsify it together. So that’s how I approach my materials and process.”
Because in the end, Bey’s work is practical, more than it is fantastical. She is writing and illustrating a plan that achieves diasporic goals and is making it available to all of us. In that sense, her work may be inherently optimistic.
“It may be an illustration of a machine we need to build or a society that will eventually exist,” Bey insists of her Atlantican visions. “It’s speculative futurism in the sense that what I’m asking for isn’t hard.”
Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.
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