Vivica Satterwhite: F is for Freedom, at SPACES–Freedom is Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose
In 1982 no one I knew could stop listening to Prince’s iconic record celebrating the apocalypse, 1999. The record’s title song reminded us in robotic-alien voice that no harm would come, “Don’t-worry-I-won’t-hurt-you-I-only-want-you-to-have-some-fun.” This sense of dancing on the grave of white patriarchal capitalism is at the heart of Vivica Satterwhite’s installation in Toby’s Vault at SPACES (on view through October 20).
Visitors enter F is For Freedom through Ada Pinkston’s Searching For Mother Tongues, which sets the tone for Satterwhite’s darkroom-esque installation. Satterwhite’s subjects are fast cars and glamorous dancers at work, and the artist’s eye for capturing the pure erotic athleticism of moving bodies and the energy and burlesque-neon colors of the dance club is impressive. Likewise, Satterwhite’s photographs depict the ethos–the glitter, glamour, speed, and extravagance of the dance club and of the hooptie subculture of the neighborhood. And the photo installation depicting the tricked-out autos is the backdrop for a female subject who confidently bears her gold teeth, which visually echo the chrome wheels and 1970s-gold of the over-sized rims and glistening-gold paint of the cars around her.
Satterwhite says in the artist statement that she just began using film cameras recently, experimenting with and teaching herself developing and printing during the COVID pandemic. This new element of the artist’s practice is a part of the installation, as Satterwhite provides an abundance of film negatives for visitors to view through magnifying glasses. This interaction is an important part of Satterwhite’s installation, as the photographer compels us to remember or become acquainted with the photographic printing process. In our digital age, this is a necessary, but as viewer, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in the negatives, and if I was 20 years young and/or knew nothing about photography, this part of the installation might have been completely confounding.
F is For Freedom takes viewers into Satterwhite’s communities, as she become a serious photographer at 13 when someone gifted her a camera. In this sense, the artist invites us into circles that may not normally be accessible. Her comfort with the subjects and ability to capture the uniqueness of each person–be they dancer performing a handstand in fishnets and a thong, or the glamour of a the hooptie enthusiast with golden teeth and extravagant manicures, is palpable.
The decadent celebration of the end of the world in “1999”–”Everyone’s got a bomb–we could all die here today–but before I let that happen, I’ll dance my life away,” Prince, Lisa, and Wendy sing midway through the track, is present in Satterwhite’s installation. While the light, the sparkle, the booties, the performative glamour are present in F is For Freedom, there’s a story of resilience in finding and reflecting beauty at this moment in History. The exuberance, sweat, blood, and breath–life “unreined,” indeed, “unmasked,” of summer 2023 is the backdrop to this work, but so are the systemic sexism, racism, and homophobia that make dancing for money an excellent (but perhaps limiting) financial choice, or inspire the DIY-artistry of the hooptie (which to my knowledge, whites haven’t yet appropriated for financial gain) in the first place. Like Searching For Mother Tongues, the monumental installation from which one enters Satterwhite’s installation, this work is about survival, resilience, and the brilliance of art made in community, during an era of tremendous trauma, much of it due to systemic racism and overt white supremacy.
Much of Prince’s “1999” is centered on the Cold War and social and global travesties of the Reagan era: welfare reform, amid the U.S.-Russia (then Soviet Union) arms race–the technological critiques come through in the title song, and throughout the record–at least until you reach record two, as “Free” reminds listeners “be glad for what you’ve got” track, “Free.”
Be glad that U r free
Free 2 change your mind
Free 2 go most anywhere, anytime
Be glad that U r free
There’s many a man who’s not.
In 2023, freedom feels more accessible to fewer people than ever, particularly for women of color. There’s an essence of freedom in the feminine bodies Satterwhite celebrates in her installation, and the artist honors them, their beauty, style, strong bodies. What comes across is strength. While we don’t know the subjects’ backgrounds, nor their stories, we wonder how much the day-to-day hustle to survive limits their choices, their abilities to be even more powerful in their careers, families, and communities.
In “Free,” Prince reminds us to:
Be glad 4 what U had baby, what you’ve got
Be glad 4 what you’ve got.
Vivica Satterwhite’s installation is one of celebration and gratitude. For the sake of her, the subjects of images–and, for all of us coming out of the personal, social, and political traumas of the last five or five hundred years, we must demand more and better options, embracing and expressing freedom, even as it is clear that people across history and cultures make beautiful and compelling art, cultures, and ideas under all circumstances.
Prince Rogers Nelson, “Free,” 1999 (Warner Brothers, 1982).