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African art is sweeping through the mainstream art world as noted in recent examples from the Brooklyn Museum’s Disguise: Masks and Global African Art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Creative Africa exhibitions. Aiming to ride this wave of momentum is a new photography exhibition by Denver-based artists Thomas “Detour” Evans and Tya Alisa Anthony. In They Still Live the two artists present a series combining DNA, African relics and African Americans in Denver.
For the project, Evans and Anthony had each model conduct DNA testing, provided by Ancestry.com. Based on the results models were then photographed with pieces from the Paul Hamilton collection of African art that corresponded with their lineage. The series aims to question assumptions about identity, inspire research into one’s heritage and promote global unity. We spoke with Evans and Anthony to learn more about their project, which runs June 30 to July 24 at RedLine in Denver, Colorado.
Recently there have been many stories on African Americans who are doing genetic tests to trace their roots. In this way your series is very timely. What cultural, social and/or political factors do you think has brought about this renewed interest?
Tya Alisa Anthony: Advancements in technology have finally caught up to the desire of many African Americans looking to discover their heritage due to our complex history here in America. Where it would seem other cultures typically have the ability to trace their ancestral paths through documentation for example, African Americans typically have not possessed this tool. But now the affordability and process to submit a DNA sample has never been so convenient with the help of technology and the Internet.
Thomas “Detour” Evans: I would also add that the initiative by people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has made a profound impact on the views of many. Gates’ testing of hip-hop legends has created a narrative that learning about oneself is possible, liberating and cool.
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How does this project address the reality of the uneasy relationship some black communities have with genetic technology due to the legacy of eugenics?
Evans: During the process of bringing the project to life, I actually found that the opposite was true. I found that every individual I discussed the project with was ecstatic about the possibility of learning more about their lineage. Each person had stories that were passed down through generations and in a way became their unofficial identity. Although there has been a history of healthy skepticism towards anything related to genetics in the African American community, I see a shedding of the protective armor. I believe not only time, but the inclusion of African American owned DNA testing companies have played an important part in rebuilding trust in the industry.
As creators of the project you both submitted to DNA testing. What were those findings and how did they impact your approach to self and the series?
Evans: The results of my test revealed that I was estimated to be 91% African (29% Cameroon/Congo, 29% Ivory Coast/Ghana, 13% Mali, 11% Senegal, 3% Nigeria, 3% Benin and Togo, 2% other) and 9% European (4% Great Britain, 4% Ireland, 1% Scandinavian). The results were something that I expected, but to know the regions and the percentages was very liberating. Looking into the mirror I feel like I know myself a little better. I want to actually visit those regions, walk the land and experience the environment. Knowing that my identity is more than just the broad label of African American, I have a deeper connection with others around me.
Anthony: DNA results revealed my ethnicity is of West African descent from Benin and Togo. As a community driven visual artist exploring the theme of identity, the results have inspired me to continue to connect and research not only traditional but contemporary art and culture of my origins. I have found a spiritual and emotional connection to my heritage and look forward to where it will lead me in the future as a visual artist.
In what ways do you hope this project challenges the concept of race in America?
Evans: I hope this project will open up more dialogue about how we define race, culture and ethnicity. I want people to leave thinking about the labels we place on ourselves and others, and start to raise questions when they see those labels juxtaposed to a rich and diverse background. Race has always been a contentious topic that is difficult to talk about. With more information about one’s background, I see the conversation about race becoming more fruitful. People are able to dive deeper into the genetic makeup of America.
Anthony: I hope this progressive project challenges and replaces the negative stereotypes and connotations placed upon generations of African descendants worldwide. The idea of race relations and perception of African descendants is not only an American conversation but a necessary global dialogue. Our complexities are what make us unique and should be respected as such.
The column, On the “A” w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture entertainment and philanthropy in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of arts administration company, Souleo Enterprises, LLC.