Time and time again

Many people worldwide would say that 2020 has been one of the worst years we have faced – the pandemic and its impacts, climate change, iconoclasm, various protests and conflict.

Yet, these are not unique phenomenons in human history; they all have been seen before and will likely be seen again.

For African-American artist Adia Millett, what matters most is how we see these things and remember them – a constant theme in her work.

In her new series of paintings, colorful polygons, orbs, bent arcs and sharp angles are closely juxtaposed, while glittery powders add an eye-catching touch.

“We project meanings onto things,” said Millett. “The viewers must interpret the paintings based on their own experience and projections of what they think a series of connected shapes may stand for.”

The pointedly titled painting Projection, Not Reflection shifts one’s outlook imperatively: the appearance of a kaleidoscopic mountain range and its reflection in the dark water works as a landscape that fulfills our desire to see scenes within pictures.

While Millett has been developing her signature geometric painting style for some time, distinct symbols such as sharp angles, clear lines and bold colors make an appearance in her new works.

“The combination of organic shapes with sharp lines reminds me of life,” she said. “The transformations often happen when we confront the people or beliefs we disagree with.” The hard edges also echo our digital, pixelated age.

Although the artist said her focus on home and identity from her early works has come apart and taken a more abstract turn, traces of the theme can be found in the form of bigger social issues that she conveys in her new creations.

The predicament of homeless people is her underlying commentary in Tent House, in which the tent serves as a contemporary symbol of housing insecurity in the United States.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where Millett lives, tent cities are set up at night on less-trafficked avenues. Some are even permanent fixtures at highway underpasses and in public parks.

Though the Dutch wax textiles and duck feathers used in the piece give a lightweight feel, on a deeper level it is a weighty castigation of the state and private sector’s failures to provide basic human rights for the people.

In the assemblages Adornment and Grandfather, family warmth is evident from her use of neckties made by her grandmother for her husband, through which Millett celebrates her grandparents’ happy union and her multiracial heritage.

Adornment resembles the feathered Native American war bonnet, while Grandfather incorporates a West African textile in its cloud-looking top.

Millett treasures the handmade accessory and sees it as a symbol of male professionalism when her grandfather was alive.

“What makes something African-American art is not that it refers to race, history or a political movement but that the hands, the labor, the mind that made the art comes from someone who has had the burden and the gift of living as an African-American,” she said.

The Movement is her playful take on Hong Kong’s recent social unrest. The painting brings to mind inflated beach balls and beach umbrellas in leisure spaces.

Millett paints these icons as lightweight objects falling from the sky, rather than protective barriers against the rain. Yet the painting’s title summons visions of mass protest, collective action and the tools that pro-democracy activists used to protect themselves from pepper spray.

“When I began The Movement, I tried to understand what was happening in Hong Kong with the protests, and everyone I spoke to had a different opinion,” she said.

“It became very clear to me that regardless of where you live, we see what we want to see. Some people choose to see hope, others see power and injustice.”

Suggesting movement, water, rain, rocks and earth in the painting, the artist said the natural elements are similar to our world views and our continually changing struggles.

Her pieces are on display in the Galerie du Monde’s exhibition A Matter of Time, the artist’s first solo show in Asia, on view to January 10.

(This article was published at The Standard on December 18, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Time and time again )

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