Feeling The Spirit in The Dark
by Preston Pavlis
Perhaps the first suggestion to the presence of a haunting is the trace of something out of place, unsettled, or unsaid.
Although I can’t say that I’ve ever definitively believed in spirits, other-worldly spiritual forces are a deep part of my family’s lived experience. Spiritual faith has been a life-saving, revelatory vigour for some; an older male relative of mine had an epiphany one morning while walking through the woods that awoke within him a new vision for life: to educate those around him about the all-delivering power of the Lord’s love. As for me—a closeted gay Black boy growing up in Southern California—I felt an internal conflict with notions of the spiritual, particularly the Christian worldview embedded so deeply within my family’s history. The burgeoning question of my sexual identity was mired in a fear of social retribution, owing to an unspoken expectation that I would fit the mould of the man that God had destined me to be.
Many queer Black people have experienced this conflict, and the crushingly limited rendering of Black masculinity in the North American imagination is a ghostly legacy with which all Black men therein are forced to contend. By osmosis, we have accumulated centuries worth of psychological harm about our own masculinity through racist and homophobic ideas, institutions, and histories. For me, “ghostly” brings to mind Hollywood horror stories of object- or person-possession; rarely depicted are stories of group possession or the haunting of a society at large. For the American artist Shikeith, real ghosts linger over Black men in North America and have far-reaching implications, despite that they have been exorcised and remedied over a period of generations.
I had the opportunity to speak with him about his research in creating his latest exhibition, Feeling The Spirit In The Dark at the Mattress Factory, which— in both name and approach—references E. Patrick Johnson’s 1998 journal article “Feeling the Spirit in the Dark: Expanding Notions of the Sacred in the African-American Gay Community” and Aretha Franklin’s song, and eponymous album, “Spirit in the Dark” (1970). Its four installations offer an expansive reading of the emotional lineage of Black men in the United States, blurring boundaries of the secular and the sacred in bodies that have known chains, the church, and the club. Through his use of what he calls “fugitive” materials, like glass, water, soil, and light, Shikeith unearths the incorporeal forces that seek to damage Black emotional potential. Equally, he aims to “trace the ways in which Black people have been able to generate remedies,” he tells me, “that we’ve used to navigate ourselves toward freedom.”
Witnessing the first installation from my computer screen, I am doused in deep light and deep sound; also titled Feeling The Spirit In The Dark, it is a room with curved walls and a wooden walkway that leads over a rippling, reflective, dark pool of water. The walls are painted haint blue, a colour traditionally used by the Gullah people in the Lowcountry regions of the southern US to ward haints, or ghosts, away from homes. Emanating from a line of LEDs covering the top of the gallery wall is a shade of midnight blue, with a staining saturation that evokes memories of basement parties. A nineminute soundtrack composed by collaborators Trapcry, Corey Staggers, and Justen LeRoy echoes the space’s sensual lighting in a mélange of Gospel, R&B, and the Blues. For Shikeith, the Blues in sight and sound are part of the same pedigree: “The Blues have always been a huge part of Black expression,” he says, “particularly Black queer expression. [I’m] thinking about the different Blues artists who identified as queer, male, and female, and how that was an early way of finding out about their existence.”
Feeling The Spirit begins to conjure a variety of collective Black memories affixed to water, ranging from the womb, to the horrors of the Middle Passage, to the sanctifying powers of baptism. Although vacant of bodily presence, Feeling The Spirit evokes something similar to an earlier sculpture of Shikeith’s, Revisions, or standing where the deep waters of everything backed up (2018), in which a Black male figure’s blue, glass-blown “reflection” runs twice as deep as he is tall. Both works create a strong desire to go deeper through the waters of memorial heritage, the former’s deep-violet blaze and accompanying soundtrack creating a sensuous and protected encounter against immaterial forces of harm along the way.
Feeling The Spirit is part of Shikeith’s exploration of “blue space,” which began in previous exhibitions, such as notes towards becoming a spill, part of the Long Road Projects residency at Atlanta Contemporary and The Language Must Not Sweat at Locust Projects in Miami. Notably, Feeling The Spirit harks back to exhibitions by David Hammons in the late ’90s and early 2000s, such as Blues and the Abstract Truth at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland. Whereas Hammons’s installations were diaphanous and ethereal, the light in Feeling The Spirit is nocturnal and, along with the soundtrack, positions the exhibition within an underground setting where queer ecstatic experience is found. Foundational to Shikeith’s working practice is contributing to the formation of a distinctively Black queer vernacular, in the footprints of Black gay artists like Marlon Riggs and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. In his process of creation, he employs a methodology of gumbo which is, in his words, “the mixing and meshing of ideas to create a new language,” which elucidates his acceptance of multiplicity in form and content.
In Altar (Held After), a confessional stall sits within a dark, earthen “chapel,” which is empty, save for piles of dirt in the corners that ground the structure in an unmistakably southern locale. A variety of collected and original images are pinned to the walls: diagrams of slave ships are juxtaposed with photographs of Black men in various expressions of intimacy with one another; there are found images of Black children, and portraits of prominent Black queer figures. The soft light is considerably warmer than the tenebrous blue of the room adjacent; emanating from the enclosure behind the confessional’s facade is a glimmering glass sculpture of the artist’s head on a mound of dirt. Here, the conflation of spirituality (as defined by the Christian church) and Black queer identity comes into question. The light escaping from the glass head casts shadows of the cross-patterned gate across the interior of the chapel, signifying the interior fracture that religion causes in the lives of many queer Black men—but the light is also numinous, rooting its definition of faith in an acceptance of one’s own existence.
In front of the gate sits a prayer kneeler with a “glory hole” carved into its base, containing a small three-minute video of filmed and found footage; to view it, one must kneel and move in close. Echoing the aesthetics of collage on the chapel’s walls, the video is a montage of psychic film that blurs barriers between the sacred and the secular. Set against faint audio and footage of ships that once used to transport human beings as cargo across the Atlantic, Black men undergo various articulations of spiritual and sexual reconciliation. In one moment, a sweat-drenched body writhes in bed; in another, a man is baptized in a tub of water; a gay Black couple kiss passionately in the next. The most transfixing of these clips is footage shot by the crumbling ruins of a church; here, the Black male body attains an almost paranormal agency. Rooting itself in an acceptance of tenderness, Altar (Held After) is, according to Shikeith, about “surrendering to a history that is our own,” and works to disinter a buried lineage of emotional potential within Black North American men. Foregrounded here is a politics of emancipation in which the boundaries between secular and sacred dissolve, and Black men are presented with full access to both experiences, as well as the experiences that are produced in their blurring.
To reach the final room of the exhibition, one must go up a flight of stairs, thus encountering the work Autoeroticism. The saturated blue light from the first installation bleeds into the stairwell, sustaining the atmosphere, and a steady flow of water runs down the banisters. There is a luminous projection on the ceiling of Caravaggio’s __The Incredulity of Saint Thomas_ (1601–1602), viewed most legibly at the top of the stairs. In this markedly queer painting, Jesus guides the hand of Thomas into his open wound, confirming to Thomas his physical existence in the world. Shikeith reimagines Jesus as a Black man and leaves Thomas white, cropping the image into a close focus of Thomas’s doubtful gesture. In this repictorialized act of Thomas “penetrating” the wound of Jesus, Shikeith shows the invasive effects of racism and homophobia on the physical and psychological well-being of Black men in North America. Thomas’s gesture suggests the fear of a continent that has long castigated both queerness and miscegenation. Conversely, Jesus shepherds Thomas’s hand inward, suggesting the need for Thomas to have a visceral reckoning with the spectres that he himself created.
Ascending the stairwell, the soundtrack that echoed across the bottom floor of the exhibition gives way to a pensive rendition of “’Round Midnight” by Corey Staggers. Echoing the lyric of the first three installations, The Beauty of Recovering What Has Been Lost rejects the diurnal and instead finds consolation in the low light of the stars. Seven illuminated glass-blown sculptures of penises are suspended from the ceiling with twine in the formation of the Big Dipper. A two-hour durational projection onto the ceiling gradually invades the surrounding darkness with a pale haint blue. As in the first installation, the glass sculptures resurrect past recollections, in this case the physical and sexual violence of lynchings with their customary practice of castration, as well as the promise of liberation found on the Underground Railroad. Shikeith is attracted to the mutability of glass and its refusal to exist in any one state, which complements his meditation on Black manhood: “It can be a liquid, it can be a gas, it can be a solid,” he tells me. “But it holds this fragility. And then, you know it can cut you! This is how I want to exist, in many different ways.” Masculinity, in all of its crushing fragility has potential for beauty.
For Black queer folks (including myself) raised in environments where institutional trace of religion and racism become entangled with the many things we are, where do we find solace?Central to Shikeith’s work of disentangling is his definition and embrace of the “spill.” Speaking to me, he says, “To spill is to resist being constrained to boundaries, it is to take up the form of freedom. It is known as a failure or an accident, everything that people think is wrong. I wanted to take up that language in my work, because in spite of a failure to perform a certain kind of way, as a young Black gay man, I was still self-determined.” He holds: “To spill is to point towards a sort of self-determination and a free-form way of being, way of existing.” I listen.