Abstract Earth

Artist Torkwase Dyson reveals how Black history shapes the natural world

By Jennifer Wilson

Photos By Guarionex Rodriguez, Jr.

A black woman dressed in black with silver hoop earrings sits on a stool in a studio

Sitting in her studio in Beacon, New York, the artist Torkwase Dyson tells me she has been painting the same painting for 30 years. “It’s had to be about the trees or the land or water,” she laughs, “there’s nothing else.” I glance over at a few of her canvases. They are, to a casual observer like myself, large black squares. 

Dyson has become known for her large-scale geometric paintings and sculptures, the former made from layers of acrylics shaded down to near black, charcoal, and graphite, the latter often comprised of plexiglass or steel. Most readers, I say to her, would hear that comment about trees and water and expect to see landscapes, “not abstract art.” She corrects me, “I’m not an abstract artist. I’ve chosen abstraction as a subject.” 

A black woman dressed in black with silver hoop earrings sits in front of a wall with a black circle

For Dyson, multi-media abstraction is a form of social commentary, a way of representing the opacity of the structures and systems that have produced both racial capitalism and the climate crisis. Those forces are “completely out of view,” she tells me, “That’s real abstraction.” She offers as an example the internet and how it figures in our mind as the ethereal “cloud,” when in fact data centers and servers take up vast spaces and consume large amounts of energy. “Abstraction is a very productive tool for capitalism,” she says firmly.

Dyson has a soothing presence, even as we talk about the possible end of civilization. Her voice is high-pitched and melodic, like she’s singing me a lullaby about the extraction economy. It is a strange sensation to have when discussing climate change, which often leaves me feeling daunted and powerless. But Dyson’s art is about bringing ambient concerns into sharp focus and breaking the problems we face down to a more manageable size. For instance, she’s fascinated by the architecture of racial injustice: the curvature of the slave ship, the dimensions of the auction block, the grids of power plants in poor Black neighborhoods. She makes use of geometric shapes to locate and pinpoint the conditions of life under capitalism, to concretize systems that can feel illusive and indeed — abstract.

In 2019, she had a show at the New Orleans Museum of Art titled “Black Compositional Thought: 15 Paintings for the Plantationocene.” The paintings showed a base of dark, grayish black pigments flowing freely across the canvas. Superimposed over them are small white triangles and errant white lines, reminiscent of maps and blueprints. Dyson uses geometric forms to explore the ways our natural landscapes have been altered by racial capitalism, from slave plantations in the American south to redlining in northern industrial cities. 

These are geographies that Dyson knows intimately. Her childhood was split between North Carolina with her father, and Chicago, where her mother, the anthropologist D. Soyini Madison, taught at Northwestern University. Both parents instilled in Dyson a love of the outdoors. Her mother was an avid gardener, and her father took her and her siblings camping and hiking. She attended a high school that emphasized Afro-centrism alongside health and wellness, which meant forging a strong connection to the land and sea. “The world I grew up in,” she recalls, “was a world that was aware of the magic of being healthy.”  

In her last year of college, at Tougaloo in Mississippi, Dyson decided to take some art classes, seemingly on a whim. After graduation and some time spent abroad (in Peru and Guatemala), Dyson wanted to move out west and paint, but her mother, “a really firm academic,” she says, wanted her to go to graduate school to get an MFA. They had a deal — if Dyson got into Yale, she would go; if she was rejected, she would go to California (“someplace warm,” she smiles). To her surprise, she was accepted, graduating in 2003. But it wasn’t until a couple years later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that the themes that would define her as an artist came fully into view. “Hurricane Katrina directly politicized me,” she explains. At the time, she was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta and helping to house people displaced by the storm. It dawned on her that “the people in my house were environmental refugees. This was climate migration.”

One of Dyson’s first exhibitions was “SHE’S SO ARTICULATE,” a group show of Black women artists at the Arlington Art Center in Virginia in 2008. Dyson contributed a wall installation titled “Oil and Fauna Don’t Mix” made up, according to the exhibition notes, of “mass produced objects (earring cards, rhinestones, yarn, and sequined decals for sweatshirts) created in the third world and intended for consumption by an African American audience.” A large black octopus appears in the foreground, appearing to swim amid all this fast fashion detritus. A year later, she participated in a group show in Philadelphia at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Her contribution, “Grass Stains” was a performance and video piece that showed her dirtying a white suit with grass and dirt to dramatize the “unmaking of white as a perfect state of being [and] transforming it into a potential space for inclusion of new relationships with nature.” These early explorations into beauty, fashion, and the environmental impact of both, are part of Dyson’s enduring interest in making the politics of climate change something palpable, a political crisis that can be felt on the skin, and on some skin more than others. 

Her work is experiential and at times blurs the line between formal art and just Dyson out in the world living her life and trying new things. In 2016, she created a solar-powered mobile studio called “Studio South Zero” as part of an effort to understand the energy she was consuming in her space. “It wasn’t a mobile studio at first,” she explains. “Initially it was a project about modular architecture.” The endeavor gave Dyson the chance to learn more about renewable energy and hardware (it was constituted from upcycled materials). Eventually, it did become a mobile exhibit that went from Chicago to Lowndes County in Alabama. Lowndes County was a place where emancipated Black people moved during Reconstruction to form new communities on land white planters didn’t want. Dyson opened Studio South Zero up for other artists as part of micro-residencies; it also functioned as a collaborative space for conversations about geography and movement, in particular Black American experiences of migration. Photos from the exhibition show Dyson in the tiny studio with her friends and collaborators, laughing, and outside of it, taking in the sunshine.

Torkwase Dyson, Liquid a Place, 2021. Installed at Pace Gallery, 5 Hanover Square, London, October 8 – November 6, 2021. Photographer: Damian Griffiths, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Dyson’s work began attracting greater attention in 2018 following her traveling exhibition, “The Wynter-Wells School for Environmental Justice,” named for the Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter and the journalist Ida B. Wells. Though it carried the title “school,” Dyson is uneasy with that framing. She did not call the meetings “classes,” and preferred instead to say “sessions.” A review in 4Columns by Aruna D’Souza referred to it as a “nomadic ‘pop up’ art school.” Dyson started the first session by handing out a poster featuring questions like: “What is the relationship between labor, mass incarceration, and global warming?” and “How are existing forms of abstract drawing tied to notions of natural resources, self-emancipation, and geography?” 

You could draw your answers, something D’Souza says gave the Wynter-Wells project that same sense of grounding that I felt in my time with Dyson. “[By] offering ideas on how to use that skill to address otherwise insurmountable problems, even in a small way,” wrote D’Souza, “[Dyson] allows us to enter the fray as active participants rather than remaining powerless bystanders.” When I talk to Dyson about Wynter-Wells, she comes back to the theme of community and liberation — how can art be part of the struggle, she seems to say, if it is not drawing people together?

Dyson is perhaps best known for her theory of “black compositional thought.” It is an evolving concept, she tells me, and right now she talks about it as a form of sensitivity for how Black history has shaped landscapes and waterways. It is intimately related to Dyson’s interest in the concept of the plantationocene. Though associated with the feminist scholar Donna Haraway, the term was collectively generated at the 2014 Ethnos conference in Aarhus, Denmark, as a way to update the term anthropocene to account “for the devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations, relying on slave labor and other forms of exploited, alienated, and usually spatially transported labor.” With “black compositional thought,” Dyson is tuning her senses to depict, criticize, and even transcend these enclosures. 

A portrait of a black woman dressed in black with silver hoop earrings

In a video interview from 2019, Dyson described a conversation she had with an astronomer at Colby College who told her about the techniques used to measure stars in distant galaxies. “The mechanism is a series of black mirrors that throw light essentially,” she recalls. “When they’re doing that in the viewing space, they have a light system that goes down and says, ‘we’re now becoming dark adaptive.’” For Dyson, these words were an articulation of the question that has guided her as she works toward a definition of black compositional thought: How can we reattune our senses so that they can adequately measure the devastations that have been wrought in the name of empire? 

A portrait of a black woman dressed in black with silver hoop earrings

An art collective she is a part of now carries the name Dark Adaptive. Typically, Dyson focuses on sculptures while the artist Andres Hernandez and the dancer Zachary Fabri create a performance element in response to her work. In 2019, they put on a mixed-media show titled “I Belong to the Distance” as part of the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. Dyson made boxy steel sculptures reminiscent of the hold of a slave ship; once inside, you can only measure the passage of time through slits in the surface that show the collapse of daylight. The sculptures force you to feel what it means to move through time, but not space, which becomes — in the context of the Gulf of Oman — a commentary on the persistence of forced of labor and seaways as routes towards exploitation both in the past and the present-day. As part of “I Belong to the Distance,” Fabri performed a dance meant to evoke the movements of pearl-diving. Enslaved Africans were brought to the area to perform this dangerous underwater labor, which Fabri channels in view of the waterfront. 

In recent years, Dyson has begun engaging more closely with water and waterways as key sites in Black history: the Middle Passage, Katrina, the lead-contaminated waters of Flint Michigan, and rising sea levels, which she says disproportionately affect people of color. To get closer to the work she has also become a certified scuba diver. Dyson cites as a major influence Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, which uses the slave ship and its wake as a metaphor for the aftereffects of slavery in contemporary Black life. Dyson’s first major artistic engagement with water came in her 2019 exhibition, “1919: Black Water,” which included paintings and sculptures about the murder of Black teenager Eugene Williams, which sparked the 1919 Chicago Race Riots. Williams was sailing in a homemade raft in Lake Michigan when it accidentally drifted toward the white part of a segregated beach. A white beachgoer started hurling rocks at Williams and his friends, striking the 17-year-old and causing him to drown. 

Dyson’s point of departure for the show was the raft itself. In one painting, titled “Plantationocene,” we think we are given an aerial view of the raft, yet on second look, it appears more likely to be from the bottom up, as white streaks reminiscent of search lights pierce Dyson’s near pitch-black canvas. At the center remains the raft itself, a testament to Williams’s right to drift aimlessly across a lake, to move through the world unencumbered by the brutal geometry of a racist world. 

Torkwase Dyson, Liquid a Place, 2021. Installed at Pace Gallery, 5 Hanover Square, London, October 8 – November 6, 2021. Photographer: Damian Griffiths, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Dyson tells me about a recent sound exhibition she worked on for the Pace Gallery in London. I am curious to hear how her ideas translate into sound. I tell her about an environmental sound artist I read about who records the sound of glaciers melting. Her eyes get large, and she smiles a bit. I laugh and offer that “I think that’s too literal for you.” She tells me her approach is just different: “I don’t make work about oceans rising. I don’t make work about air pollution. I don’t make work about the pressures of levees. I don’t make work about hot zones,” she says. “My work is about questioning the conditions of all of that and how people move through it.” 

I say my goodbyes to Dyson and return to the natural world. I look into the distance and see quaint Beacon homes covered in snow. I sigh at the pastoral charm. Then suddenly, I hear a familiar guilty pleasure: Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” A truck comes over a hill, blasting the music at full volume: “Still gettin’ that ‘caine/Half what I paid slippin’ right through customs.” I sway to the beat while mulling the driver’s carbon footprint. I look like that famous GIF of Jay-Z anxiously dancing, which also — I now know — has a carbon footprint. If only there was a way to take Dyson with me everywhere, to make all this feel manageable again. I wonder how putting two tons of black plexiglass in my trunk would affect my miles per gallon.               

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing essayist at the New York Times Book Review and a contributing writer at The Nation.