Adler Guerrier's work defines the quest for sanctuary in Black Urban America. His photographs, collages and video creations evoke the original allure of L.A.'s and Miami's ghetto-suburbs, while celebrating their present and their promise.
A typical photograph of the California African American Museum’s show called “Conditions and Forms for blck* Longevity’’ reproduces a powerful, immediate symbol of African presence in America: a bright-colored assortment of flourishing blooms of flowering shrubs in all colors of red, violet and purple from all over the world.
Here, thriving in South LA, are alien presences that have rooted themselves comfortably and very presentably in what was once the very epicenter of White America, just as their black human neighbors have. Guerrier’s work is rife with the idea that cultivation—of self and of soil-- is rooted in the entitling self-determination movements in Black history—such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association of 90 years ago.
The hues of Guerrier’s equatorial flora are echoed by the minty green, papaya pink, and cantaloupe orange paint of many of the sunshiny Los Angeles and Miami homes in his pictures, as well as an evocative, even alluringly romantic video called "(Devoted to the cause and improvement)."
In a black-and white photo, towering palms soaring over residential Van Ness Avenue suggest a desert oasis, one of many domiciliary sanctuary evocations that the artist calls his “limited utopias.”
* "In titling this project, the artist uses a unique phrasing—blck—to destabilize the way we might read and think about the term “black” as an identity marker, concept, color, and collective definition. He suggests the critical role that imaginaries—shared visions of possibility—have in giving shape to the space of liberation and self-determination. blck is emblematic of the artist’s relationship to the poetics and openness of language, and it resonates with a notion of selfhood that is similarly open and in formation. In this spirit, Guerrier’s romantic works of contemporary landscape offer glimpses of a black utopia that is ephemeral, personal, and grounded in lived experience." - California African American Museum
Guerrier’s photos are the cornerstone of the exhibit at the California African American Museum. Other powerful pictures include a twilit shot of a statue of Toussaint Louverture, liberator of Guerrier’s native Haiti. Louverture led the only successful slave revolt in history and said: "I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man."
As Guerrier states, a true utopia “would allow us to live fulfilled lives.” Which, he implies, even the most flowery and colorful urban environments cannot alone assure people of color.
His other images include visages of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both of whom were violently denied the fulfillment offered by Guerrier’s (and King’s) ideal of “Black longevity,” itself a concept parallel to “Black Lives Matter:” the idea that black people should not be denied the fundamental right to live as long and as peacefully as whites.
The prints in the show, which utilize drawings and collage images, combine political thought with an almost pastoral vibe, perhaps stressing the goal of struggle over the image of struggle itself.
They include Guerrier’s folded works, reminiscent of automobile road maps, that begin with processed photographs but evolve far away.
Printed on large sheets of paper in black and white, they form the substrate of complex collages that can be displayed folded or not. These intricate structures comprise Guerrier’s personal cartography, his maps of the soul, of where the future ought to be.
In “South of Pico,” her recent book on Southern California African-American Art, Columbia University professor Kellie Jones calls black migrations: “nothing less than black people willing into existence their presence in American life.”
Now, in Black History Month, Adler Guerrier’s show demonstrates how this migration has become an essential element of our sub-tropical urban America. But it also suggests the challenge that remains to bring to this element the equality it deserves.
"Adler Guerrier: Conditions and Forms for black Longevity" is at the California African American Museum through August 26, 2018, and is curated by Diana Nawi. CAAM is at the corner of Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard, just west of the 110 Freeway. Marc Haefele has covered Southern California for 89.3-KPCC since 2000.