When poet Amanda Gorman skyrocketed to fame in January with her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” a 2018 portrait of her by Philly-based artist Shawn Theodore got caught up in the flurry as people shared it on Instagram and sought out prints on Artsy.
The photograph casts the poet as a muse in Theodore’s signature style — an elegant silhouette in jet-black against the bright pop of a yellow wall. It was the outcome of a chance introduction to Gorman in Los Angeles, and Theodore hadn’t thought about it much again until the internet took notice.
“I mean, I knew it would blow up, but I didn’t think it would go haywire,” he says.
In a way that an ordinary photograph couldn’t, Theodore’s portrait perfectly encapsulated a moment of transformation for Gorman — one anticipated by the artist, who titled his image Mnêmosynê, Afrolinquistica, invoking a Black goddess of memory — from talented poet to cultural icon.
The full breadth of Theodore’s talent as an icon-maker is on display in Philadelphia through April 11 in a solo exhibition called “Night Stars.”
The show, at Paradigm Gallery, features 21 photographic works that delve into his vision of Afromythology, his ongoing exploration of African American and African diaspora histories both real and imagined.
The images include portraits, landscapes, and pictures in a more documentary vein. Across them, Theodore plays on the color blue as a carrier of mood and meaning, evoking watery depths and starlit journeys, deep indigo and the photographic process of cyanotype.
Less a narrative than a constellation of vivid moments that span space and time, the exhibition reveals the more conceptual work that Theodore has pursued over the past several years as he began to search for spirituality in his art practice.
“The work became easier to do because it felt like I was serving my ancestral family,” Theodore says. “It’s almost like a game of telephone — how far back does it go? What are you hearing and what is your place in this lineage? What are you doing with the messages that you’ve been given?”
The story of indigo
The story of the blue dye indigo provided Theodore with a grounding for the work in “Night Stars.” While most Americans are familiar with the blue dye’s connection to jeans, fewer know of its role as a prized commodity on Atlantic trade routes during the 1600s and 1700s, when enslaved humans were traded for indigo-dyed cloth.
The more he learned — that indigo fabric was sewn into the original American flag, that dye cakes were used as currency when the U.S. dollar weakened, that its cultivation in the United States was based on the traditional knowledge of enslaved Africans — the more it seemed to symbolize the complexities of African American experience.
The color drew him into a question about photographic history: What would a Black tradition of cyanotype, a 19th-century method of printing with iron salts that produces distinctive blue images, look like?
Because there isn’t one — the history of cyanotype is overwhelmingly one of white European and American image-makers — Theodore decided that such an archive was his to imagine. While he quickly discarded the idea of working with the chemical process of cyanotype, he kept his gaze focused on its blue aesthetics.
Women play a prominent role in Theodore’s visual cosmology, but how he represents them varies. Fanm Jade Ble (Blue Jade Woman) is a silhouette of a young, goddess-like figure whose blue-Black profile glints with delicate jewels. Her adornment evokes the photo’s origins as part of a 2019 New York Magazine fashion spread, but to see the image as a 5-foot tall print renders its technical details breathtaking, from the slight blur of the model’s fingers to the hyperreal focus of the jewelry.
In contrast, Face to Face with Yemayá conjures the water-loving goddess in tight close-up as she nearly disappears into the field of blue around her. Seductive, mournful, even dangerous, she threatens to take a viewer with her.
While such portraits are highly staged and crafted in digital postproduction, other images in the exhibition reflect a more spontaneous mode.
In one of several night photos of young people at a festival, Theodore catches a man emerging from a (pre-pandemic) crowd swathed in smoke, just as his cross necklace catches the light.
The image’s title, Legba at the Wede, casts the man as the mythological gatekeeper of Haitian Vodou, Legba, who gives (and refuses) access to the sacred realm of the gods. To a viewer in 2021, the picture also sparks a yearning for the transcendent moments of nightlife from which the pandemic has banished us.
Landscapes shot in Jamaica round out the dreamlike narrative of “Night Stars.” Though Theodore rarely works in the genre, he found himself drawn to photographing the land for ancestral resonances.
Maroontown Stroll pays homage to a famed site of resistance to colonial rule, where people who had been enslaved upheld their freedom and built settlements. Sankofa, a reference to the Ghanaian proverb that the past must be reclaimed to move forward, depicts a man raising his arm in greeting at the edge of the ocean.
The images invoke an idea that Theodore says imbues his Afromythology: that enslaved Africans taken across the Atlantic who survived must have assumed they had passed into an afterworld.
“Black American life is the afterlife they imagined,” Theodore says. “It was a frightening prospect — and guess what? It was true. It was very frightening, and it still is.”
Shawn Theodore: Night Stars
Continues through April 11 at Paradigm Gallery + Studio, 736 S. Fourth St. Information: 267-266-0073 or paradigmarts.org.