Space as Form: Movement 1 (Bird and Lava) by Torkwase Dyson

Torkwase Dyson interrogates architecture and infrastructure to radically engage with form as power, particularly in how Black and brown bodies compose, perceive, and negotiate space.

This exhibition is the culmination of a period of process-oriented study for Dyson’s ongoing project, Bird and Lava, which is a multifaceted expression of a question: “If blackness is already an architectonic developed out of liquidity (ocean), can the work embody this phenomenon and offer sensation (sensoria) at the register of liberation?”


Torkwase Dyson
Studies for Bird and Lava
Aug 1 – 9, 2020


68 Park Place
East Hampton

Above: Torkwase Dyson, Space as Form: Movement 1 (Bird and Lava) (detail), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 40-1/4" × 48" (102.2 cm × 121.9 cm) © Torkwase Dyson
Torkwase Dyson, Space as Form: Movement 1 (Bird and Lava), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 40-1/4" × 48" (102.2 cm × 121.9 cm)

"In this moment of environmental precarity we will need to be both liquid and mountains, bird and lava. And it is the density of Black grace that will always be the thing that keeps us in our own humanity. Thinking through the histories of Black liberation, these are the victories that fortify my being in the objects I make. It's time for a new relationship with abstraction, an illegal abstraction developed out of the condition of new world building toward liberation and revolution."

Torkwase Dyson

Torkwase Dyson, Closer #5 (Bird and Lava), 2020, gouache and pen on paper, 24" × 18" (61 cm × 45.7 cm)
Torkwase Dyson, Overall Form #1 (Bird and Lava), 2020, gouache, acrylic, pencil and collage mounted on paper, 17" × 14" (43.2 cm × 35.6 cm)

Integral to both her painting and sculptural installations, the artist’s assertion of Black Compositional Thought functions as a mode of awareness that contends with the formal applications of mark-making and constructions of space. Specifically, Dyson has created a compositional system of curvilinear and rectilinear shapes as a starting point for this body of work. Responding to the spatial tragedies of enslaved people who hid or stowed away in architectural spaces to attain their freedom, especially Anthony Burns (hull=curve), Henry “Box” Brown (box=square) and Harriet Jacobs (garret=triangle), the shape system is a compositional tool to articulate an infrastructure of resistance in geometric abstraction.

Torkwase Dyson, Scalar Test #1 (Bird and Lava), 2020, graphite, acrylic and string on wood, 12" × 12" (30.5 cm × 30.5 cm)

"Each human here manipulated and moved through infrastructures of state-sanctioned domination by converting enslavement into a system of self-imposed displacement, structural confinement, and clandestine geographic movement. I’ve culled a geometric shape language from histories of Black liberation strategies to develop a system/structure/scaffolding of self-expression."

Torkwase Dyson

Interested in the phenomenological presence of geometric forms, painting and dimensionality, the artist’s hand is present throughout these new works, in the layers of wax and ink on paper, and the compositions that gesture to horizon lines and ocean depths. These works invite a haptic response that moves beyond the referential or pictorial to assert an autonomy in abstraction. In the artist’s words, this is “an illegal abstraction where Black perception, ideas of scale, space, and the immeasurable are embedded in art experience.”

Torkwase Dyson, I Am Everything That Will Save Me (Bird and Lava), 2020, acrylic and string on wood, 36" (91.4 cm), diameter
Torkwase Dyson, Both, All and Everything (Bird and Lava), 2020, acrylic on board, 40" × 30" (101.6 cm × 76.2 cm)

Throughout her work, Dyson refers to the Plantationocene as site of ongoing exploration—its spatial and architectural infrastructures of power and its accompanying strategies of survival and resistance. The Plantationocene—a term first proposed by feminist theorist Donna Haraway—offers an alternative to the human geological epoch often called the Anthropocene. The term centralizes the role of an agro-industrial system of enterprise as integral to the historic rise and growth of capitalism.

The geography of the Atlantic Ocean and its relationship to the Plantationocene is present throughout Dyson’s works. Using this as an organizational tool, Dyson’s new works explore the shape-space of spheres contained in trapezoids, with each work charting the horizon line and the surface below with new compositional proposals. Together these forms gesture to the hauntological specter of the Middle Passage and the waterways that have been sites of colonial trauma for Black bodies, as well as spaces of survival and resilience.

Torkwase Dyson, Space as Form: Movement 2 (Bird and Lava), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 40-1/4" × 48" (102.2 cm × 121.9 cm)
Torkwase Dyson, Liquid, Space and Light #1, 2020, gouache and pen on paper, 12" × 12" (30.5 cm × 30.5 cm)
Torkwase Dyson, Liquid, Space and Light #4, 2020, gouache and pen on paper, 12" × 16" (30.5 cm × 40.6 cm)

Dyson’s poetics of form and composition offers an approach to abstraction that conveys a self-determination and spatial discovery in phenomenological gestures. In articulating and subverting the architectonics of the infrastructure of racism and colonialism, Dyson’s abstract paintings and sculptures direct us to the political potential of shape and surface to build new worlds.

Torkwase Dyson, Liberation Scaled (Bird and Lava), 2020, charcoal, acrylic, oil stick, graphite and collage, 102" × 91" (259.1 cm × 231.1 cm)
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Torkwase Dyson

Torkwase Dyson describes herself as a painter working across multiple mediums to explore the continuity between ecology, infrastructure, and architecture. Examining environmental racism as well as the history and future of Black spatial liberation strategies, Dyson’s abstract works grapple with the ways in which space is perceived and negotiated, particularly by Black and brown bodies. In 2019, Dyson’s solo exhibition I Can Drink the Distance was on view at The Cooper Union, New York, and her work was also presented at the Sharjah Biennial.

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