Heirlooms & Lenses by Rodell Warner
CONTACT Photography Festival
May 5–Jun 24, 2023
Reception: May 5, 6–8pm
Trinity Square Video
401 Richmond St W, St 121, Toronto
This exhibition by Trinidad-born artist Rodell Warner features a series of animated GIFs derived from archival, public-domain images distorted through optics of technology and time. Digitally-scanned visuals available online and free of copyright restrictions represent an institutionalized history filled with voids, inaccuracies, and erasure. Through digital intervention, Warner generates hybrid narratives, complicating the authority of archives and re-evaluating subjective relationships to captured images.
A mummified cat, the ardent gaze of “goo-goo eyes,” and a Black boy come under the same lens in Warner’s Heirlooms & Lenses, as the artist intuitively teases and playfully manipulates representations of inheritances, voids, and mysteries untold. The cat, meticulously illustrated in a French 19th-century rare book on the ancient Greek city of Thebes, is authoritatively referred to as a momie de chat. She is an Egyptian goddess, domesticated in colonial antiquity, the mythical underpinning of European historical thought. The gaze held between a young, cosmopolitan, Black-presenting couple, pompadoured and pressed, has a rotational pull despite its weighted caricature. The source image comes from the vintage sheet music for Bert Williams and George Walker’s “If You Love Your Baby Make Goo Goo Eyes,” an early 20th-century song written and sung by the renowned Black comedic duo who upended the blackface minstrel tradition. And the boy who walked to the river’s edge and skipped a flat stone, featured in Warner’s Heirlooms & Lenses, is the side-kick to the main character, Paul, and his tired workhorse friend, Herman, in Harvey Weiss’s 1950s children’s book Paul’s Horse Herman. Thanks to librarian Augusta Braxton Baker’s extensive bibliography about the Black experience in children’s books, the boy is remembered—his name is John-Thomas.
Drawn from the public-domain holdings of the New York Public Library’s Digitized Collection, these isolated illustrations might be exaggerated expressions of our forgotten humanity—the baggage of our historical and moral concerns. Warner, a photo-based artist who often creates animated GIF series with imagery drawn from digital archives, intuitively mines these underlying subaltern meanings, drawing them into conversation with each other across technologies and time. The cat, the goo-goo eyes, and the boy are illustrations or artists’ renderings of what can be considered sacred, lustful, and precious. For the artist, they are the resulting treasures of obsessive keyword searches into uninhibited Black life. Placed under the same layered lens and select focusing, they are archival images digitally manipulated with Warner’s tender, careful handling, enacting the “right to opacity” that Martinique poet, novelist, and theorist Édouard Glissant declared the Afro diaspora embodies as a means of creative resistance and empowerment. They drip, waver, morph, and loop within a microscopic view—akin to a petri dish, the GIF works in the exhibition are shown on floating surfaces, allowing the viewer to experience them from various perspectives, studying them in a format that resembles the handling of rare books or other materials in the library stacks.
In The Heirloom Collection series (2022), Warner explores which material is free to share and reuse from public domain archives—those retrievable bibliographic metadata records that form an expansive repository. The sheer scale of the living database at the New York Public Library—as of this writing, containing a colossal 928,932 items—paired with a robust search engine allows the artist to feel through the mark-making of forgotten print ephemera intuitively. Propelled by a simple, autobiographical need, Warner hones in on search parameters that harken back to Black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art Tina Campt’s approach of being attuned to the “quiet and the quotidian,” reflecting broader observations of the ways Black contemporary artists enact everyday practices of refusal.
”I wonder what representations there are that escaped being framed by the oppression or trade of the people who looked like me,” Warner expounds. “These characters can exist in worlds, could be from worlds that have different stories, or could refer to rich parts of the experiences of African diasporic subjects that are not what was commonly recorded.”
Exhibition Text by Rea McNamara
Presented by Trinity Square Video in partnership with CONTACT Photography Festival
Generously supported by
Documentation by Darren Rigo
Rodell Warner is a Trinidadian artist working primarily in new media and photography. His works have been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Berlin Biennale, and the National Gallery of Jamaica. Most recently his digital animations using archival photography have been exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the 2021 exhibition Fragments of Epic Memory, and at TERN Gallery in Nassau, the Bahamas, in the 2021 solo exhibition Augmented Archives. Rodell lives and works between Port of Spain in Trinidad, Kingston in Jamaica, and Austin, Texas, in the United States.