In Deep

By Jo Phillips

Intrepid artist and storyteller Tavares Strachan is on a mission: to unearth the trailblazers that history had forgotten. Read more in “In Deep”

Image on left Robert, 2018Blue neon, purple neon, Pyrex, transformers, MDF boxDimensions variable58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live in Interesting TimesCourtesy of the artist, photo and video by Andrea D’altoè Neonlauro

Google’s dictionary meaning of this month’s theme  ‘Full On’ so the definition will tell you that it’s running at or providing maximum power or capacity. Well Tavares Strachan is just that. A force of nature who is blazing his trail through the art world but not before he’d gone deep sea fishing as a teen or learning to blow glass on a shoestring in Egypt. He was poor, aged 18 but he had a dream to create didactic art. He’s now a polymath, neon maker and artist who creates his own highly-politicised glass sculptures which he has sailed down the Mississippi on a river barge in hot pink neon emblazoned ‘You Belong Here’.

Following his hugely successful first ever London exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in October 2020, Strachan will now exhibit at Marian Goodman New York.What was an unprecedented year for most of us – and a highly unusual year for the art world, with cancelled exhibitions and shuttered galleries – was the year that Strachan took the UK art scene by storm with his solo show, earning five stars from The Guardian’s exacting art critic, Adrian Searle.

Strachan is known for his ambitious projects and a dedication to honour the unseen and the unsung through quite literally, meteoric art projects. This forms the through line to his work, along with excavating forgotten marginalised characters from historical obscurity long before it became a cultural necessity. 

Courtesy of the artist, photo by Christopher Hoover

The New York-based artist now lives in Harlem with his family but he grew up in a rowdy household with five other brothers in the Bahamas, where his mother juggled jobs as a hotel maid and a seamstress to make ends meet.

Strachan’s obsession with exploration started as a child and was nurtured by a whimsical mosaic of experiences. From gazing at the stars in the Nassau moonlight, to spending months at sea, Tavares was constantly inspired with the idea of infinity and the challenge of knowing the unknowable. These experiences sharpened his awareness, not just of the world that existed away from the island but of the ecosystems, hemispheres, oceans and the solar systems that have informed his art.

At school, he loved science and mathematics but as he adored the mechanics of storytelling more, he decided to become an artist, a vocational move that his parents didn’t really understand.

When he was 16, Strachan spent his summer holiday out at sea, as part of a deep-sea fishing crew that got him interested in exploration, an obsession that has never ceased.

Finishing school two years later, he took his first trip overseas to work in the glass shops of Cairo, to add another dimension to his art vocabulary.

Strachan’s strides to make systemic changes in the art world has included several expeditions to the Arctic, Cosmonaut training in Russia and launching a gold bust into space that circles the earth. However, the work that first put Strachan on the international art world map in 2006 involved transporting a 4.5-ton block of ice via FedEx from the Alaskan Arctic to the Bahamas. Stored in a solar-powered freezer chamber in Nassau, the installation honoured the story of African American Matthew Henson, an overlooked Arctic explorer who in 1909 may have even been the first to set foot on the North Pole.

Image captions: Installation view – Tavares Strachan: In Plain Sight, Marian Goodman Gallery London, 8 September – 24 October 2020. Image: Lewis Ronald Images credits: Copyright Tavares StrachanCourtesy of The Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Image: Lewis Ronald

One of Strachan’s other major projects was a pink mobile neon installation, You Belong Here. The installation featured a 100-foot neon art piece that would be transported from one location to another on a 140-foot barge on the Mississippi River. The barge that carried the piece was made visible from different regions and places throughout New Orleans. It was created to pass on a message to the residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, encouraging them to examine themselves and what the city meant to them and their futures.

You Belong Here, Prospect .3 New Orleans, 2014 (Installation view from Prospect .3 Biennale, New Orleans, LA)Blocked out neon travelling installation on the Mississippi River30 ft x 80 ft on 100-ft barge Courtesy of the artist, photo & video by Joe Vincent Grey

Returning again to the matter of what we collectively choose to remember from history lies at the core of Strachan’s practice, coupled with a deep interest in exploration. In 2018 he worked with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) Art + Technology Lab and Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to launch a satellite containing a 24-carat-gold canopic jar in the likeness of Robert Henry Lawrence – the first African American astronaut to be selected for any space programme – who died on a training flight in 1967. The satellite was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and will continue to circle the Earth for seven years after launch.

All of the stories, experiences and unearthing of hidden histories have contributed to Strachan’s “Encyclopedia of Invisibility”, which is a 17,000-entry encyclopedia which pays tribute to the stories left out of Encyclopedia Britannica. The Encyclopedia of Invisibility was compiled over an eight-year period, and in Strachan’s words, “is a place where all the invisible things can be seen.” He explained, “Recently I made this encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Invisibility, and the inspiration was sparked by Matthew Henson and his story. What became apparent to me was that there is this whole world of invisibility that was in plain sight.”

Much in the same way as Sir Steve McQueen – the Turner prize and Oscar winning force who has long-since eclipsed his reputation as an artist – Strachan is now something of an authority on telling lost stories. In 2018, a study was made by Artnet on the representation of black artists in museums, and they found that art by African American artists made up only 2.4 percent of acquisitions of the 30 museums they surveyed. Whatever the mould in the art world is, Strachan is breaking small parts of it piece-by-piece. 

Continually mindful that the ability to tell a story has always been one of the most powerful aspects of art, Strachan has masterminded a series of unmissable artistic visual experiences. In doing so, he is attempting to engage and converse so that he might answer some of the questions that history has swerved. 


If you enjoyed reading “In Deep”, then you might also like “Smell like You”, click here to read more.

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