Pittsburgh artist explores Black cultural legacies through collage and photography
Artist Gavin Benjamin pieces together an imagined future out of the shards of a reclaimed cultural legacy.
The Guyana-born photographer and mixed-media artist is best known for his series Heads of State — dazzling collage portraits assembled from appropriated Old Masters artworks, magazine clippings, commercial imagery, family photographs, and more, sometimes even Swarovski crystals.
Some of the portraits in the ongoing series recall Black cultural icons. One summons the distinctive, bearded profile of the late rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, while another imposes the unmistakable eyes and brows of actor and producer Tracee Ellis Ross, and the lips of singer Missy Elliot, on the blank, white oval face of a female figure in an Elizabethan neck ruff. Benjamin assembles each piece by hand, literally cutting and pasting with glue, though Photoshop work is often involved.
“I try to play with different parts of pop culture, and I try to tell different stories,” Benjamin said. “I hope people can relate or figure it out. I try to leave something to the imagination, so you have to go back.”
Other portrait subjects are fictional, like a turbaned man whose facial features were assembled from multiple photographic sources, while his shirt is lifted from a Versace pattern.
Each of the 50 or so works in the ongoing Heads of State series insists on the regality of Black people – the Hussle figure, for instance, wears a bejeweled golden crown. And many reference Benjamin’s own friends and relations: Hussle’s crown is inset with an old family photo of Benjamin’s stepfather and baby sister.
“That was a Father’s Day card I never sent!” Benjamin said, laughing. “So I guess now he’s got a print! That’s much more valuable!”
Benjamin, 50, has lived in Pittsburgh for more than a decade – it’s his second stint in town, actually – but he’s also a growing presence on the global art scene. His work has been in group exhibitions around the U.S., with solo shows as far afield as Paris. Recently, he was featured in the internationally distributed art magazine “Kolaj.”
“Gavin’s work deserves to be seen by everyone,” said “Kolaj” editor Ric Kasini Kadour, who’s based in Montreal and New Orleans.
Works like the Hussle piece are politically potent, Kadour said.
“I think for some white viewers, the thought of a Black man wearing the crown of the Holy Roman Empire is a radical idea,” he said. “He’s directly challenging this kind of latent sense of white supremacy that I think affects our culture.”
Benjamin’s work might strike Black viewers differently, said Kadour. “I think it’s akin to Afrofuturism and this idea of having imagery that expands the idea of what’s possible,” he said. “It is about giving a viewer an opportunity to think about Black wealth and to think about what it means to be royalty.”
Pittsburgh-based curator Sean Beauford agreed. “It’s just kind of honoring his culture, Black culture, Guyana culture, and … situating it next to the historical arts pieces by the masters, the self-portraits, the still lifes and the portraiture that he does.”
Beauford co-curated “Making Home Here,” a group show at the Mattress Factory that includes work by Benjamin. “He’s drawing that connection from the past, and making sure that space isn’t reserved for only one type of people,” Beauford said.
Nicole Capozzi owns Bloomfield’s Boxheart Gallery, one of the galleries that represents Benjamin. She said his style is suited to the times. “His natural form of expression is the remix,” she said. “He knows how to take his own thing and then everything that he sees that’s happening in our kind of crazy labyrinth of the media world, and just reframe it, retell the story in a new way that’s extremely important.”
Benjamin said Heads of State reflects his desire to be a modern version of a traditional village storyteller, preserving oral histories.
“I want to leave breadcrumbs for my nephew or nieces, so they can have something to go back and look on, and say like, ‘Oh, that’s that, and that connects the dots there,’” he said.
Benjamin came to U.S. around age 8, and lived with his family in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“It sucked as a kid!” he said, laughing. “Kids teased you about your accent, and you heard a lot about, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ and crap like that. I mean, there’s a lot of internal racism that happens to young kids, and you don’t really realize is happening until you’re older. You’re like, ‘Whoa.’”
He graduated from New York’s prestigious School of Visual Arts with a degree in photography. (His resume includes an internship with legendary portrait photographer Arnold Newman.) He first moved to Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, for a relationship, then lived in New York and Washington, D.C., for several years before returning more than a decade ago.
Some of Benjamin’s formative work experiences were in the commercial sector, working for photography studios, talent agencies, and magazines including Esquire and Good Housekeeping.
“You were around all of these creative people who were at a different level,” he said. “They weren’t fine artists, but they were commercial artists, so they had to keep churning it out all the time. And churning it out is not such a bad word. It’s a great word. So they didn’t have the time, the luxury, to really be like, ‘Oh my god, this is not good enough.’ It’s like, ‘Next project!’”
A little more than a decade ago, Benjamin moved to Pittsburgh because he finds it welcoming and affordable – not least his basement studio in Radiant Hall, near his home, in Lawrenceville.
He’s also found opportunity. Among his most-seen works are surely his 14 large-scale portraits of Pittsburgh sports heroes exhibited in Downtown storefronts. “Downtown Renown: Pittsburgh Sports Greats,” presented by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, includes images of athletes from Honus Wagner and Franco Harris to Swin Cash and Sidney Crosby, all done in Benjamin’s characteristic collage style.
In August, Benjamin won his first major art prize – an $18,000 award from the Eben Demarest Fund, administered by the Pittsburgh Foundation. The fund supports the work of independent creative artists and archeologists in the U.S.
He’s also in two group gallery shows. At Contemporary Craft, as part of the exhibition “Food Justice,” his collaboration with local glass artist Jason Forck highlights Benjamin’s photography skills with luscious still lifes celebrating the food and dining accoutrements of Guyana.
For the Mattress Factory show “Making Home Here,” Benjamin contributed a room-sized installation about his home country, in South America. The photographs, including self-portraits augmented with collage, and mixed-media works, interrogate the history of the former British colony.
“It really talks about slavery, and how Scotland tried to erase Guyana from its past,” he said. “And it talks about the wealth from the sugar-cane industry and what that meant and how certain people got paid even after they’ve given up their slaves.”
While Benjamin grapples with Guyana’s history of colonization in his work, he also freely draws on the traditional art of those colonizer countries. Heads of State incorporates classic portraiture, for instance, and his “Food Justice” photographs suggest Renaissance-era still lifes. He said another Black artist once asked him about his attraction to the Old Masters.
“I was like, ‘Well, art history, the history of photography, the history of music, is for those who want to indulge – television, film – and who want to be creative,’” said Benjamin. “And you take from it what you want to take from it, and you go out and create things. You shouldn’t put a limit, Black or white.”
Another ongoing project is the result of his residency at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. Benjamin has photographed more than 60 Black residents and members of recent immigrant communities in Greensburg. The plan was to photograph them in the lavishly appointed museum itself, in ways that reflect the classic art in the Westmoreland’s collection. Most of those he photographed had never even been inside the venue before, he said.
“There’s this piece with three women sitting at a table drinking Coca-Cola, and I thought at this time, what will be much more American than an Indian family, dressed in their saris, in this like luxe library drinking Coca-Cola. What’s more American than that?”
The photos will be the basis for a future exhibit at the museum, he said. But Westmoreland Museum director and CEO Anne Kraybill said on some levels, the project is already a success.
Benjamin’s portraits are “highly stylized, very suggestive of fashion shoots … but also very authentic to who these individuals are,” she said. “I think that’s very much a part of what this project is about, is him as an artist really getting to know these people as people, and as individuals, and bringing some of those elements into the photograph.”
“I want everybody to come the way you want to be seen,” said Benjamin. “The way you’d want your kids or grand kids to see you in the future if this piece was in a museum.”