Contributed by Abshalom Jac Lahav / Kris Rac wears many hats. They are an artist, a medievalist pursuing a Ph.D. in art history, and a partner at Field Projects Gallery. Their work is political, poetic, and visceral, and these qualities are displayed in Rac’s recent show at Home Gallery on the Lower East Side.
The installation is a shrine that re-imagines America’s founding patriarch. The centerpiece features a large American flag, painted with the image of Oluale Kossola, the third-to-last adult survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, alongside a series of disembodied hands. These hand paintings are strange and visceral, with twelve appendages referencing portraits of every president involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Created from fabrics stiffened with paint, they embody historical record and painterly tradition. In using samples of portraits while transforming their original content into sculptural objects, Rac takes a leap forward in contemporary painting.
Their work is a powerful critique of the pressure of homogeneity enforced by national identity. The intimate Home Gallery, which sees itself as “a quiet moment in the busy city for powerful conversations,” is the perfect venue for it. Gallery founder William Chan observes that “it is important for art to engage with as many people as possible. Museums and galleries have their audience, but that is often a narrow slice of the population. With the recent Supreme Court rulings and the midterm elections months away, I feel Kris’s work is very relevant, and even if it moves the needle a tiny bit, I think it’s worth the effort.”
I sat down with Kris Rac to speak a bit more about the work:
Jac Lahav: Who is Oluale Kossola, and why choose him for this project?
Kris Rac: Oluale is a pivotal figure because he provided a rare and vital transcript in his own words of being kidnapped from his tribal homeland, Banté [a town in what is now the West African country of Benin], and his journey across Africa being trafficked on a slave ship. In seeking to tell a truthful history of the United States, I have turned to Oluale Kossola as a more suitable “founding father” figure. His voice, courage, and willingness to speak about his horrific experiences provide Americans today with the opportunity to better understand our history.
JL: How does that relate to the contemporary political climate?
KR: For many years now, and especially after Donald Trump was elected, I’ve been obsessed with the growing number of people in the United States who have conflated the early figures and documents establishing the government of the United States with the early Christian founders and the bible. I call this “patristic patriarchy” – as in the gendered and Christo-centric obsession with foundational fathers. This patristic patriarchy is championed by white Christian nationalists (WCN), who are a rapidly rising extremist threat to our nation, progress, equity, and freedom.
JL: And the work is painted over an American flag, something the WCN use as an assertion of patriotism. Do you see this as an act of rebellion or amplification?
KR: Yes, the flag goes back to WCN and the rise of patristic patriarchy. A flag isn’t an image of a sacred figure or a representative of one. A nation’s flag belongs to the people of that land, that place. So, in short, it’s both. I rebel against the sentimental attitude of right-wing WCNs toward the flag as a sacred (and relic-like) object. But I also hope to use the flag as symbolic material to argue for a different kind of nationalism. The United States could change the unequal foundations of our government by rewriting our constitution. So, true nationalism, for me, carries forward this desire for equity.
A national flag is always a charged object. It retains historical memory, and that memory has been erroneously whitewashed, displacing many essential stories of the foundational Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who created this nation. By overlaying Oluale’s iconic image on the American flag, I hope to clarify this to viewers. We must acknowledge histories that have been erased.
JL: I love those presidential hands. How did you make them?
KR: One day I was sitting in my studio struggling with a painting when it hit me – I needed to change the form of the surface. I needed to stop thinking about canvas and painting surfaces entirely and think about making relics or shells of people. I had already moved toward this with my grave pieces, but those were still attached to painting as a medium on a tablet, a flat space. I had a bucket of very dirty acrylic brush water with me, and I grabbed a spare tee shirt, soaked it in the water, and laid it out to dry on an old garbage bag in the shape of the Gaddi Torso. I called this a wet drapery, which made me laugh.
So, the hands! Yeah, they come out of the wet drapery torsos, but these are made on cotton art handler’s gloves that my friend Zane Wilson donated to me. I initially tried painting the hand of Charlemagne on a regular glove, which was a complete failure. The texture was horrible – it wouldn’t retain the stroke of the wet drapery, but cotton did. As soon as I got these gloves, I knew I had to switch projects. Cotton art handlers’ gloves immediately made me think about unseen labor. It seemed apparent that I should paint the hands of all the presidents who subjugated and enslaved people.
JL: The hands are really powerful. They are both signifiers and place this work in a historical context. How does taking these images out of context affect them?
KR: Hands are highly evocative. Unlike a face or a portrait, they are stripped of immediate identity other than the race, class, and labor connotations we can glimpse through gesture and texture. For example, I chose that photograph of Oluale Kossola as source material not only because he chose to be portrayed this way by the photographer but also because of the prominence of his beautiful, weathered hands, which contrast strongly with the extrapolated hands of presidents. These sit leisurely at rest, in their original portraits on writing desks or poised in a careless gesture of power. The only hands that include an object are the hands of James Monroe, whose portrait by Gilbert Stuart depicts him at his writing desk.
As for their extraction from the original official portrait paintings, I see this as an accusation. I know what these leisurely hands did, and we all can. These hands could afford to be at rest – to do the work of creating a theoretical government – because they relied on the work of enslaved people.
JL: Your background in medieval history permeates your work. Do you see the objects you create as old or new?
KR: Well, I suppose I see all things as profoundly intertwined with history. Painting is an old form; relics are old forms, and flags are old forms. But these are all immediate, existing, and participating now. So I suppose they are time-traveling objects, touching on the past, present, and future. Acrylic paint is an industrial material, so these hands will outlive me. But the formulas I think about for constructing shrine spaces are ancient. The graves, like the one included in the show, have turned into reliquaries or containers for relics. My first reliquary was called Postal and contained dirt from the Trump golf course in New Jersey, which I stole before the election in 2020. I completed that piece in 2021, right after January 6. It feels surreal that now that the former president has buried his second wife, Ivana, in that very dirt to make the land a tax write-off. Stealing dirt and hiding bodies to claim space – none of that is new, but it is always shocking and very medieval.
JL: Tell us about your parallel project of constitutional critique.
KR: The Constitution was never intended to be a permanent document. For example, Thomas Jefferson thought the Constitution should be rewritten every 19 years. We desperately need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States. I am initiating a project with that long view in mind – if I can get this document rewritten within the next 50 years, I will be thrilled.
This project ties in directly to this exhibition. In the bottom right of the Home Gallery window, I have a grave reliquary called For/Get Independence. It is a grave painting with a base box containing my pocket copy of the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. On the left-hand side of the window, there is a QR code that allows anyone to participate and share their thoughts on how the Constitution should be changed. This will form a proposal to rewrite the Constitution, which I will send to Albany and Washington DC this fall. Please participate!
“Kris Rac: Die When I Dream [of], Home Gallery, 291 Grand Street, New York, NY. Through September 15, 2022.
About the author: Abshalom Jac Lahav (he/them) is a Persian Polish artist, curator, and author, born in Jerusalem and raised in the United States, They graduated with an MFA from Brooklyn College, where they studied with Vito Acconci.