Exhibition Review of JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: The Devil and His Blues
by Kiara Ventura
“Blues is trouble. Anybody can get the blues. Some people have the blues and don't even know it,” James Thomas said in the 1982 documentary, James “Son Ford” Thomas: Artist. Thomas was mainly known as a leading blues singer from the Mississippi Delta area and worked as a gravedigger from 1961 to 1971.
Other than singing his soul out as a Blues musician and burying souls as a gravedigger, James Thomas dedicated a part of his life to sculpting. Born in 1926 Eden Mississippi, Thomas began sculpting animals and made his own toys out of clay from the local Yazoo River (believed to mean “River of Death”). As a young boy, he made many Ford Tractor clay models which gave him the nickname, “Ford.”
Some of these works that he had created throughout his life were first displayed in an exhibition called Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. This exhibition was said to be the “first time an American museum had given major recognition to the work of 20th century African American self taught artists…” Now Thomas's work is being shown at the 80 WSE gallery and this is the first time his individual work is being shown at a major institution after his death in 1993.
When entering the JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: The Devil and His Blues exhibition at 80WSE, I was greeted by a clay skull that had tin foil outlining its eyes and real human teeth in its mouth. I was amazed and examined each crooked off-white tooth. At ten years old, Thomas made his first skull to scare his grandfather and carried on in creating them into his adult years. I studied the wide array of clay figures on display: sweet birds, one dark snake, a sparkly fish, a gold hand, and a wide array of skulls. I sensed an eerie feeling throughout this exhibition. I even sensed hints of sadness (or blues) within the sweet birds and the sparkly fish. In fact, Thomas believed in ‘hoodoo,’ which is an African American folk spirituality that gave significance to animals.
After watching two short documentary films called James “Son Ford” Thomas: Artist and ‘Sonny Ford:’ Delta Artist, I began to see how his life as a musician and sculptor went hand in hand. It seems like the feelings or ideas he sang about also translated into the works he sculpted. The theme of death kept recurring in my mind especially in the second section of the exhibition displaying a wide array of suited men in coffins with the name ‘SON THOMAS’ engraved in some.
To finish off my visit, I observed a wide array of clay heads. Each one was unique. Some had blonde wigs, silly glasses, pink lipstick, and dangly earrings. It seemed like each face was ready to talk and blurt out their life story. I imagined that creating these heads were pure fun. Each facial expression made me smile. Even though, it could be seen that Thomas did not aim for an overall realistic look for each face, it seemed like each work was inspired by real people. I soon found out that some were. For example, Thomas made representations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Some faces were inspired by members of the Delta community while others came straight from his imagination.
As eerie as his work may be, we may all relate to his creations since they constantly touch upon the idea of death and maybe even sadness. After all, Thomas did state that “Anyone can get the blues” and “We all end up in the clay.”
JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: The Devil and His Blues (June 9,2015 - August 9, 2015)
New York University
80 Washington Square East
New York, NY 10003
For more info visit:
By Kiara Ventura
When walking into the Grey Art Gallery, one would be greeted by a large red text on a deep blue wall reading, Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera. Now who is Tseng Kwong Chi? And how does he incorporate the art of performing with photography?
Tseng Kwong Chi was born in Hong Kong during 1951. While growing up, his father fought in the Nationalist Army against Mao Zedong and the Communists in China. Him and his family fled to Shanghai, then Hong Kong, and immigrated to Vancouver in 1966 due to the communist takeover. Chi attended the University of British Columbia and decided to continue his education in Paris. He studied painting, graphics, and found his calling for photography at the Ecole Superieure D’Arts Graphiques (ESAG). After being educated in Paris, he moved to the Big Apple`s downtown area in 1978 with his sister, Muna Tseng, who was pursuing her dance career.
When taking a right into the gallery after reading its inviting wall text, one would see an array of photos showing Mr. Chi in front of various tourist sites, all part of the “East Meets West Series.” These black and white works show Chi with his head up high as the Twin Towers, Hollywood sign, the Eiffel tower, and the Notre Dame Cathedral all served as his one of his many backgrounds. I personally admired the photo where Chi snapped a photo of himself jumping in front on the Brooklyn Bridge as his mouth was open and his arm was up as if he was about to rocket into the NYC skies. Even though he constantly changed his background, his “Mao suit,” black mysterious sunglasses, and adventurous character remained present in each piece. Looking closely, one would notice the black device in his hand that enabled him to be his own photographer in the push of a button, which is why some call him the inventor of the “selfie.”
In the “Expeditionary Series,” the settings are more natural, grand, and breathtaking. A work that I spent a good amount of time studying was taken in 1987 Puerto Rico where Tseng stands at the far distant end of the photo. The ocean with calm cool waves takes up most of photo while the shining sun illuminates Tseng`s small figure that stands near a cliff. At a first glance, Tseng may not be spotted. Throughout this series, my friend and I even made a game called, “Spot Tseng!” since there seems to be a theme of Tseng blending into the natural settings due to his far distance from the camera. However, his attire and Chinese inspired look set him to seem out of place against natural environments. He was also able to accomplish these photos with the help of two assistants.
I soon got a glimpse of his journalistic and lively social life in the upcoming sections. He was once a freelance writer for the Soho Weekly News and in one of his articles he created a project in which he invited political figures that were against gay, feminist, and abortion rights to pose in front of a crumbled American flag, as part of the “Moral Majority Series.” Tseng, who is gay himself, expressed a sense of irony when he posed with some of these conservative Christian politicians. Along with his hand held button, Tseng also covered a story in which he took pictures with celebrities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art`s Costumes of China, the Chi'ng Dynasty exhibition preview party where he was initially an uninvited guest but gained access because he wore his iconic “Mao Suit.”
“The Downtown Scene” and “Portrait of Friends” displays Tseng`s wide array of friends which led me to wonder, “how did he make so many friends?” He took shots of renowned artists who broke the norms of the art world such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and his closest friend, Keith Haring. In these photos, they are shown lounging in their respective studio settings that reflect their abstract artistic styles. The art of performance really comes alive in his covering the NYC downtown scene where in one of the photos Tseng confidently wears a dress, puckers his lips, and puts his hand on his hip as he poses for the camera. The gallery also provided a photo slideshow, which shed some light on Muna Tseng dancing and posing with a partner against a super galactic background.
In the downstairs gallery are photos Tseng shot with visitors of the Riis Park and Lifeguard ball in the early 1980s. When entering the downstairs section, one would be greeted by a group photo of Tseng on a beach with people dressed in bathing suits as a lady, whose nipple is falling out her one piece, has her hand on Tseng shoulder and his head on her buttocks. In this series, Tseng is smiling through it all. The end of the exhibition truly sheds light on Tseng`s collaborations with Keith Haring. Some his shots display Haring in the process of creating a subway drawing and painting on the body of Dancer Bill T. Jones. The exaggerated life size photo of Bill T. Jones`s bare body covered in spiral abstract designs made me wonder about all the talents that came together to form this one artwork; Haring's artistic style, Bill T. Jones`s sharp body form that almost mimics that of Haring's iconic figures, and Tseng`s talented eye that captured the perfect moment.
At the end of my visit, I was sad to find out that Tseng died of AIDS at age 39 in 1990. But I was also surprised to find out that these photos were all taken within a decade, starting from 1980. This exhibition is just a glimpse of his many works which all seemed like they took a lifetime to create. A lifetime of adventure, experimentation, and pure fun.
This exhibition was curated by Amy Brandt, a curator at the Chrysler Museum of Art, and is being shown at NYU`s Grey Art Gallery till July 11, 2015.
Performing for the Camera by Tseng Kwong Chi
Grey Art Gallery
New York University
100 Washington Square East
New York, NY 10003
For more info visit: