Asia Armour: In Bloom
Asia Armour’s In Bloom, on view at Deep Roots Experience, does something the gallery as a whole has done since it opened several years ago: It celebrates Black and Brown heroes, and in this case specifically women.
Deep Roots manifests those ideals overtly in shows like the annual SheArt, which presents works by Black and Brown women, and the show Who Are Your Heroes, for which artists—both men and women—highlight people who answer that question in their lives. There’s a deeper level at which this celebration takes place at Deep Roots, which is in the quotidian operation of the gallery: it exists to provide opportunity to Black and Brown artists. That in itself is a celebration of a culture that historically has not had nearly enough of that kind of support.
Armour’s celebration of women is overt, in a way she says is similar to Andy Warhol’s celebration of Marilyn Monroe, but this is about Black glamour, and women of “an era that was often unkind to Black Hollywood femininity.” She aims to give them flowers, which she literally does, starting with digitized photos of the women she chose, and collaging them against backgrounds of flowers, which she photographed and individually cut.
The women Armour chose are all entertainers, mostly singers and actresses, and all had significant social impact—sometimes simply for breaking color barriers as performers, but sometimes overtly, through specific songs, or roles, or public statements. Nina Simone, for example, probably needs no introduction on this front, but she was a classically trained pianist who studied at Juilliard, but was denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music, which she attributed to racism. Her subsequent musical career covered classical, jazz, blues, and pop with the release of more than 40 albums, and the Curtis Institute ultimately gave her an honorary degree just days before her death. It was Nina Simone who wrote the anthemic song To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, inspired and taking its title from a play by her friend Lorraine Hansberry. In a simple composition, Armour places the musician’s profile and first name against a background of apple blossoms.
Another of her subjects, likewise needing no introduction, is Eartha Kitt, who became known early for a Broadway career, and then for playing Cat Woman in the late 60s TV Batman series. Kitt is also remembered for speaking against the Viet Nam war during a White House luncheon with Ladybird Johnson in 1968. According to an article in The Guardian.com, the CIA subsequently branded her a “sadistic nymphomaniac,” and for years after that she focused on performances in Europe and Asia, before an eventual return to Broadway and success as a voice-over talent for Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove. Armour places her against a background of pink flowers, flanked by her last name, the song title C’est si bon, with which she had a hit, and–in a nod to her role in the Batman series–a black cat staring at viewers from the corner.
Armour also celebrates Cleveland-born Dorothy Dandridge, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her title role performance in Carmen Jones, the Oscar Hammerstein jazz-age treatment of Bizet’s Carmen for an African American setting; the entertainer Josephine Baker, who rose to stardom in Paris, was painted by Picasso, friendly with Jean Cocteau, and refused to perform in the segregated South of the US, but spoke at the 1963 March on Washington; and Diahann Carroll, who was the first African American woman to win a Tony Award for Best Actress, for her starring role in the 1962 Richard Rogers musical No Strings.
Armour cites Warhol’s glamorous treatment of Marilyn Monroe as inspiration for her presentation of these women. Warhol’s screen prints, though—especially the repetition of them, even with variation– can read as the commodification of women. Armour’s work, by contrast, is labor-intensive and one-of-a-kind. Each celebrates its star with hundreds and hundreds of flowers, cut and placed one by one. It’s a different kind of statement, much more intimate. It’s on view through April 24.
In Bloom: Asia Armour
March 26 – April 24, 2022
Deep Roots Expereince
7901 Central Ave
Cleveland, Ohio 44104