Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh wants you to know her upcoming exhibition at
Oklahoma Contemporary, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Oklahoma is Black, will be "a
love letter to black people and to blackness in Oklahoma."
Opening Feb. 22, the exhibition will both depict and celebrate Oklahoma
City's rich black history, highlighting the black lives that have made and
continue to make this city.
Fazlalizadeh interviewed black residents of
Oklahoma City's Northeast side, where she grew up, about their experiences
living with daily oppressions, particularly racism and sexism.The
exhibition will include wheatpaste portraits of and quotes from those
residents, oil paintings, historic photos and two videos.
"When I talk to a lot of black folks, it's this sense of invisibility that
they feel," she said. "That people walk over them, or walk past them, or
walk through them, or speak over them or speak through them and [they]
aren't really seen. This show is about undoing that, amplifying current
black life and current blackness to honor our black history and the fact
that we are still here. We've made it through all these attempts at
erasure and attempts at violence against us."
Fazlalizadeh juxtaposed bold, provocative words from the interviews with
textures of black life and tender moments. "It's going to be a look at
black history, but the historical blackness of regular black people," she
Oklahoma is Black will be the final exhibition at Oklahoma Contemporary's
fairgrounds location. The organization's new campus will open at NW 11th
and Broadway this fall.
"Currently there are several artists addressing issues of identity and
oppression on a national level," said Jennifer Scanlan, exhibitions and
curatorial director for Oklahoma Contemporary. "What is particularly
exciting about Tatyana's work is that it speaks specifically to Oklahoma
City, the experiences of people here."
The exhibition name references Fazlalizadeh's America is Black, a series
that began with a spontaneous piece installed on Oklahoma City's 23rd
Street when Fazlalizadeh came home for the holidays in 2016.
"The election had just happened," Fazlalizadeh said. "I was like a lot of
Americans: angry, afraid, vulnerable, feeling the need to do something, to
take some action."
The piece paired large-scale portraits with the words: "America is Black.
It is native. It wears a hijab. It is a Spanish speaking tongue. It is a
woman. It is here, has been here and it's not going anywhere."
Fazlalizadeh said most Oklahomans reacted positively. "People said that
they would stand outside of it for like an hour -- just be with it and
take photos, because it made them feel seen. It made them feel safe. That
is something I wanted to do -- I wanted to let people feel seen. That even
though this election just happened, to not be afraid to know that you are
here and you matter and that you are recognized, and I think people felt
Now living and working in Brooklyn, Fazlalizadeh has been internationally
recognized for her artwork of portraits and words that give voices to
people who are often marginalized, including women, people of color and
the LGBTQ community. Her works can be found in cities around the world.
Few know it began in Oklahoma.
"I found this beautiful black and white photograph of a child in a
magazine," said Fazlalizadeh, who was born in Oklahoma City. "I wanted to
draw it, but I wanted to draw it very, very well and render it as close to
the photograph as I could. So, I took my time with it and I spent a few
days on it. When I finished it, I showed it to my mom, and she was like
'This is amazing. Show this to everyone.'"
On that list was Quiquia Calhoun, an art teacher at OKC's Northeast High
School, who gave Fazlalizadeh room to experiment with paint, pastels and
pencils — and portraits. Fazlalizadeh said her interest in drawing and
painting people increased at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and as
her career began, painting images of celebrities as a freelance magazine
illustrator. Fazlalizadeh balanced building a portfolio with paying the
bills, hostessing at a restaurant while cold-calling magazine art
directors and hand-painting T-shirts for a clothing store.
The transition into her current practice began as she segued into painting
murals and working with the community through work with Mural Arts
Philadelphia. "I came from working in my studio, where you're just
isolated sitting by yourself at an easel, just painting alone in your room
to working outside, surrounded by people and working on this huge scale.
It's just a really big difference, and there are joys that I find in both
And then came Stop Telling Women to Smile, a street art project addressing
gender-based street harassment. Fazlalizadeh said the series began about
her own encounters, but, as responses began rolling in from around the
globe, she decided she needed to include more voices.
"Street harassment is not just my singular experience," she realized.
"This needs to be a bigger project because this is bigger than me, this is
bigger than my own experience." She began to interview women as subjects
for the pieces themselves, pairing their portraits with their own words.
The more she told those stories, the more her own began to be told.
Fazlalizadeh has been profiled by the New York Times, NPR, MSNBC, Time
Magazine, Buzzfeed, Vice Magazine and many others. She is a Forbes 30
Under 30 recipient, the Public Artist in Residence for the New York City
Commission on Human Rights and the inspiration for Spike Lee's remake of
She's Gotta Have It for Netflix.
A few years ago, Lee Instagrammed one of Fazlalizadeh's street pieces,
asking "Who is this artist?" Friends put them in touch, and Lee both began
buying her art and using it in his movies. "He really likes me, and he
really believes in my work," she said, so when he approached her with a
script for the She's Gotta Have It remake, she was in.
The show's main character is an artist. All of the oil paintings featured
in the show are by Fazlalizadeh, who also consulted with the writers. Some
of the paintings were works she'd already done; some were created
specifically for the show. "It was very interesting, very new obviously, a
challenging experience. Never thought in a million years I'd be doing
something like that," she said.
Between She's Gotta Have It and Stop Telling Women to Smile, Fazlalizadeh,
who left Oklahoma as a 17-year-old going to art school, returns as an
internationally renowned artist.
"I do know this is a very different audience than I think anywhere that
I've shown before," she said. "I love black people, and you are going to
see that and feel that, but at the same time, it has to be hitting in some
ways. So, for me, it's like, doing both, making this sort of soft, tender
thing, but also this very hard-hitting thing, and doing so in a way that
has some type of effect on the audience, no matter who it is."
She hopes the art will work on multiple levels. "It's been drawn by
someone who's also black, who's also a woman, who's also from Oklahoma,
who's from this community. I think that who the artist making the artwork
is matters - because white people paint black people all the time - but
it's different when the artist is reflecting someone. That intention comes
there, that empathy comes there, that compassion, that history of
experience comes through that."
Oklahoma is Black opens with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 21.
Fazlaliadeh's paintings, wheatpasted large-scale drawings, and video
interviews will be on view at Oklahoma Contemporary from Feb. 22 to May 19.