Critics have long argued that all art is political, a statement and motivation for society to change. Others counter that art is simply aesthetics and medium with no ideological agenda attached.
Artist Vitus Shell is straight up political.
His first funded solo museum exhibition, “‘Bout it ‘Bout it, The Political Power of Just Being,” is on view at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette. The 17 portraits and one mural are painted on paper, cut out then composed on backgrounds of collages.
This art has a gravitational pull that can’t be ignored.
“The title came first,” said Shell. “I knew the idea I wanted to play around with.”
“Bout it, ‘Bout it,” a reference to rapper Master P, means being about this thing or what the show is about. The rest, "The Political Power of Just Being," refers to looking at issues and equality in a specific sense.
“I started the photos in late 2018,” said Shell. “I did a call for models, and about 23 participated. I knew them when I saw them. I look for that swag. You can’t explain it.”
A Monroe native, the 41-year-old artist has shown at the McKenna Museum of African-American Art in New Orleans; in Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles and at New York's CUE Art Foundation for upcoming artists. He attended the Memphis College of Art and the University of Mississippi graduate school. Most of his work is portrait based.
“I was thinking about the history of portraiture and who was able to participate — the wealthy and important. I wanted to take everyday people and put them in that conversation,” Shell said.
His models, all from the Lafayette area, include DJ Chelsea Brown, who modeled for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," along with rapper Keido Bling, Chase Julien and Malika Taylor, a marketing intern.
Shell said his work originates from a mix of emotions.
“Frustration, pride, a slew of feelings,” he said. “The idea of being black at Starbucks and the police are called. Barbecuing and the police are called. How the black body just can’t be hanging out. Even black people policing each other, as in mothers telling sons not to dress or behave a certain way. Policing that happens to black folks inside and outside the community.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do, people have pre-conceived notions.”
The 10-by-24-foot mural “Gold Everything” is based on the song by Trinidad James and was painted by Shell in just two days. It will be painted over at the end of the exhibition.
The female subject in “All the Way” radiates, while “Not New to This, Tru to This” is one of Shell’s favorites.
“It’s her pose, her inner beauty,” he said. “It was easy working with her.”
Shell scoured antique and second-hand stores for his background materials. People also give him magazines — Ebony, old Saturday Evening Posts — most of which are vintage.
The effect he creates is improvised, that of paste-up graffiti, yet with the stateliness of a religious icon.
“When people couldn’t afford wallpaper, they used newsprint,” said Shell “It’s the things around us that we absorb. The environment in constant flux. Making a connection between past and present.”
Museum curator Ben Hickey said he chose Shell's work for lots of different reasons.
“It’s culturally important, black bodies exhibited in a fine art context," Hickey said. "Normally when you see a gilded frame, it doesn’t have a black person in it.”
The artist and the curator met in 2011 when Shell was artist in residence at Masur Museum of Art in Monroe where Hickey was curator of collections and exhibitions.
Hickey has been involved in the exhibition since the photo shoots and has intentionally hung the work at 66 inches high rather than the usual 60-inch center.
“You’re looking up in a reverent way at everyday people,” he said. “People seeing themselves, figuratively and literally, more of an empowering look at black culture having normal experiences. You’re as defined by your group as you are by others. Normalizing and accepting difference is what we’re after.”
There are plans for the exhibit to travel after it closes in May. All of the work is ongoing and there’s going to be more, as well as the hope of a shared humanity among viewers, Shell said.
"With the work, I’m not just focusing on the negative. I’m giving the subjects a chance to exist,” the artist said. “I’m hoping when people see it, they see the beauty in the portraits and connect it to others they see are similar. These people are just people. How people criminalize, how you 'other' them, it’s a thing they need to deal with.”
“We can have a better relationship as a society and not latch onto the dark side of communities.”
‘Bout It ‘Bout It, The Political Power of Just Being'
An exhibition by artist Vitus Shell
WHEN: 9 a.m.to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Through May 2
WHERE: Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum, 710 E. St. Mary Blvd, Lafayette
INFORMATION: (337) 482-2278, hilliardmuseum.org