ADRIENNE ELISE TARVER
ADRIENNE ELISE TARVER
The artist on how tarot impacted her work and the power of place.
Adrienne Elise Tarver is getting personal. After years of keeping a distance between her own history and her work, Tarver is unabashedly incorporating herself and the places she's called home into her practice. From her studio in Brooklyn, the artist spoke with Platform about what sparked that creative shift, her interest in tarot, and the unique ability of physical space to give us perspective on our life and work.
Labels have a tendency to stick a lot when it comes to art, but I’m curious to hear from you what you feel your work is really about.
Subject-wise, the easy way I've distilled it is this: it's about the perception and identity of Black women. I've previously said things about Black women in the context of the Western landscape, or I've talked about the perception and identity of women in America. But I honestly think it's broader than that. So, I would just put the period after Black women.
How has it become broader, do you feel?
I think, as with the more recent series Manifesting Paradise, it's sort of about tarot and the spiritual aspect of it really draws on these ideas of Black women as representing spiritual matriarchs and the world landscape. The reason I think I initially had it more narrow to the Western, American landscape is because that's my context and the identity that I've had to deal with. But I think there's so much influence, especially in our age of digital technology and the internet, that's wrapped around the global landscape. I think the conversation I'm having is a bit broader, but I'm starting in the identity that I exist in, which is American.
I’m wondering if you could expand on how you think technology has changed that for you.
Well, it's funny with this whole tarot series. I've been thinking about tarot for a long time. It's one of those things that was in the background. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure until I was like, "What am I feeling guilty about? I think it's legitimate to be interested in this thing.” And I started to dissect why I was interested in it and this idea of the way I've framed it or thought about it. I think it's very generational in that earlier generations largely relied on religion to answer unknown questions. It's not uncommon or unheard of for people to want to draw answers about things that are difficult and confusing and unknown. Especially amidst the pandemic and political turmoil, there's this tendency to want to hold onto something larger.
And that can be a framework for creating answers. I think as we've moved away from churches and organized religion, the resurgence of things like psychics and tarot and crystals is not unique. I think it's a substitute inserting itself into the same place. This stuff isn't new, but it's reemerging at a time of technology where we're also contending with algorithms that are trying to get to know us and understand us and answer our unknown questions. One of the questions I ask myself as I'm thinking about these things in my daily life is: Is this an omen or is this an algorithm? How am I experiencing this thing? You want to believe, “I'm seeing this thing a million times. It means it's meant to be . . . but also Instagram's listening to me.”
That's a huge question! Is it an omen or an algorithm?
You can apply it to so many things because there's a point where the algorithm's artificial intelligence has become so advanced and integrated that it's really hard to figure out where it stops. I think you have to be in the woods in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no technology on you to really believe that there's no algorithm at work to influence your existence at that moment.
What made you want to integrate that into your work?
The shift from it being a fun thing I think about sometimes and talk about with friends to being in my work was really caused by the pandemic. I was like, “The world feels like it's ending. This thing doesn't feel lighthearted anymore.” Thinking about the future feels radical. And especially as a Black woman, as a Black person, as somebody in America, all of that felt radical. I mean, it still feels like the world might end tomorrow. It became much more of an anxiety that was coming to life in a real way, as opposed to the fun thing you do to find out if somebody likes you or if you're going to get that raise or that work's going to sell.
Kind of piggybacking off of some of what you said, how people are represented is such a huge and complex issue in the history of art, especially, as you said, with Black women in particular. What are some of the aspects related to that that you’re examining in your own work and trying to break open?
Particularly with Black women, there are moments of how we see people in entertainment–people like Josephine Baker–who become these iconic figures, but understanding how they exist in their day-to-day is something else. Josephine moved to France for a reason, because there was an inability to exist as a full human here. And there are other people like Dorothy Dandridge with similar experiences. It's not like I'm the first one thinking about them, but if you put all these stories together, it's about the sort of agency that Black women have and haven't had, the things they’ve had to contend with, the strategies they’ve had to create to manage their own visibility and invisibility. A lot of the themes of the work have been having hidden figures in these landscapes, and the whole tropical theme is its own tangent that I could talk about for an hour.
The invisibility/visibility portion is really this desire to give a bit more agency to the figure who can exist in a space without being immediately objectified or visible without being on their own terms. But then I also really love the strategic way that this idea of invisibility has been manipulated by people over the years. One of the things I think about a lot is Marie Laveau, which connects a lot to the tarot series in terms of the spiritual, voodoo hoodoo ideas. But one of the things I loved learning about her is that she had this whole aura of an all-knowing, mystical, psychic being. But so much of that was her recognizing that she was in certain levels of society and visible, and if she just stood there and listened, she learned everybody's secret. She's a slippery enough character that nobody has the actual story, but that's also what I love about it, this recognition that if nobody's looking at you directly, then you can be whoever you want to be and own the narrative in that way, which is kind of the crux of the way I'm trying to tell the stories with the characters and figures that I use in my work.
I know you said you could talk about it forever, but I would love to hear you touch on the tropical themes that you mentioned at least a bit.
I give people a warning because I can talk about it for a long time [laughs]. I'll try to condense. The tropics came about for a few reasons. One, I will say there's this desire for people to desire the space of the work, and the tropics are this super seductive, desirable space. But they've been co-opted. There's a whole travel industry that's tried to create this aura of desirability around these spaces, but there's this whole long history.
To give some touchpoints, the spaces that are typically associated with Black and Brown bodies, looking at people like [Paul] Gauguin and [Henri] Rousseau and how those spaces have been exoticized through those narratives and those perspectives. Then there are things like the American South and the Global South and the Caribbean that have this throughline connection through the slave trade, but also through cultural exchange. In the years during and since the slave trade, there are things like food and traditions and cultures, religions, that have made their way amongst the sort of tropical landscape. They're not specific, or they don't have to be in these landscapes, but those are the associations with them. There are these histories that have come up in these spaces and that connect these global areas that might not be connected through nationality but are connected through some very tangible, less defined ways.
I had a show in 2020 that was called Escape and it was really about the travel industry and the co-opting of these spaces. Historically, in these tropical spaces, things like cash crops and capitalism, intense political and economic turmoil are brought there, and then these places are abandoned to contend with all of the issues that were left behind. Then the travel industry comes in and says, "Well, people want to feel like they're exploring." It's this idea of exploring. We could also say we're glamorizing genocide. It's the idea of feeling like you're discovering something or exploring something that is really the language that these travel companies use to entice you to. And I fall victim to that. When you dissect where this idea, this language comes from, it really connects back to this whole colonial, imperialist idea and making people feel like these places are ripe for the taking. It is there for your pleasure and your enjoyment as opposed to this place that has existed with this really rife, difficult history and is connected to all these other things.
Just based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you're doing a lot of reading and research in this process. Is there anything that you stumbled upon that you found especially surprising?
There are so many things because history in American schools has woefully under represented most everything besides certain wars and white historical figures. One of the things that I continually point out to people, because it was surprising to me when learned it and seems to be surprising to almost everybody I tell it to, is the history of human zoos, which were a very regular practice. There are certain countries that were the worst perpetrators, like Belgium and France, and a lot of European countries, but America had them too. They would bring in people from other cultures and have them in a living landscape and have white people come and look at them.
Asia, Africa and South America were the biggest attractions. They'd bring people from these places and because this was post-slavery, people weren’t fully taken against their will, but highly manipulated under false pretenses and often had a hard time going back to their homes if they wanted to, or being able to afford any other kind of lifestyle. It existed openly for so long but we don't really talk about it. And there was one exhibit in the Bronx with a pygmy man until 1906. This is a 20th-century practice. It was next door.
You’ve spoken a lot about ideas of place and land itself. Is there a space that you go to find inspiration that maybe people would find surprising?
I just moved back from Atlanta last year. I was there for two years, and I moved there right before the pandemic. I had lived there as a kid and my parents still live there. But I didn't expect to live there as an adult, and I wasn't really sure what work I was going to make while I was there.
I think that with the pandemic and also being back home near my parents, my family history there became a source of inspiration I didn't expect. One of my good friends in grad school curated me into a show and we did an interview together where he pointed out that a lot of my work had been made from an arm’s distance. I'm talking about these other people or I have a surrogate fictional character that I've created in order to talk about things so it’s not about me. But at that time, I was starting to make this work that was actually about my own history. He was like, "Now it's personal."
That was unexpected because I am used to doing research on historical things and if I want to talk about something personal, it has to be through this other figure. That was a moment where I made this series of paintings, the sort of main paintings called Namesake and then a series of studies on a plantation house in Georgia that has my family name. Because written documentation for Black people is nearly nonexistent, there's no real proof that my particular family was there, but my great-grandmother was in Georgia until she died. It was common practice for Black people to have the last name of the plantation owner, so there was this kind of direct history there. I did this research on this plantation and found that it still stands. There were all of these images on the internet, like real-estate walkthroughs of this estate with photos from the '90s. I was then in the middle of all of these ideas and things I research, and at the time, I was working on the Manifesting Paradise series and I was thinking about tarot.
The first 22 cards of tarot represent the Major Arcana, which are these archetypal moments of life, things like love and death and motherhood or fatherhood. There's this one card, The Tower, that I was having a particularly hard time interpreting in my own language. It's about destructive moments. It's a tower that's been struck by lightning and it's up in flames with people are jumping out of it. And it's not the card you want to get in a reading. It's not a pleasant card. I've never met a tarot reader who's like, "This is good." They try to make you feel okay because it looks bad. It wasn't particularly pleasant for me to want to think about too much. But then as I was contending with these pictures of this plantation, I was like, "This is the house that needs to go up in flames."
That was a surprising moment for me. I was actually very self-conscious of how much I was going to talk about the direct relationship between it and my own family history. There's a point where I was like, "I can talk generally about it just being a plantation house." But that wasn’t the interesting part about it. Long story short, I think something that I've thought about as I'm making new work is how much I need a distancing device and how much things can be directly personal.
How does it feel for you to make that shift to creating work that perhaps you're hesitant about because the subject matter is so personal versus having something where there's a little more distance between you and it?
It's a great question and actually touches back on the beginnings of my career in art school. In undergrad, I actually was making really personal work from old family photographs. I found that having critiques when you're like 18-, 19-, 20-years-old, is weird. It was personal and I wasn't ready to have that conversation or understand what I was doing with it. I think the distancing element came from wanting to talk about things, but not wanting the conversation to go toward these people and elements that are directly connected to me. I think I'm returning to that with years more experience and wisdom and the ability to understand why I'm doing it. I think all the research before about other things and understanding how my personal history connects to it has been helpful. And it allows me to talk about it without it being the only thing I'm talking about.
Switching gears a little, what do you do when you need to unwind from all the intense things that go into your work?
I run, do yoga. I like cooking a lot. I think the thing that clears my mind the most is just going for a run, being outside, even if it’s just going for a hike. I lived in Australia for a few years, so I love going for swim and that kind of stuff. I think being outside and just feeling small in comparison to everything else is a good check for any time feelings become overwhelming.
I didn't know that you lived in Australia.
I did. Right after grad school, I was there for three years. That was part of the shift in the imagery to a lot of the overgrown tropical imagery in the work. I don’t use Australia or Australian history in my work, but it got me thinking because a lot of the tropical plants in Australia aren't native to Australia. A lot of native Australian plants look more desert-like, kind of weird, and don't look like anything we see in pictures of Sydney. Palm trees and banana leaves and all of those things were all imported there. Learning that history a bit made me think about these other spaces and how everything is cultivated to this idea. We have this idea of what these spaces are, but that's not its original form. And what is the origin of anything?
What was it like living on the other side of the world and being so distant from where you grew up?
I think in some ways it was super necessary and needed. I recommend everybody live far away for a minute. Australia is not even that different as far as places I could have lived. They speak the language. They're a mix between British and American culture, so it shouldn't be that different, but it was this uncanny difference that I think was really useful to experience. You can't assume things about people and places. Being able to travel around Asia more easily was really nice. Ultimately, I moved there right after grad school and I think it was necessary for my own artistic development. It helped remove some of those voices in my head from grad school and just make work without feeling the pressure of somebody seeing it or judging it.
I showed [work] in Australia, but there was a bit less of an anxiety about it because my professors and the core people I knew were nowhere nearby. But it ended up being too far from everything I knew. And ultimately, I think my audience, the people who I felt were really interested in the conversation I wanted to have, were not in Australia.
Expand on that for me, if you could.
I like working with students, and I talk to them about this too. There's this understanding as an artist that people need to like your work for it to be a sustainable career. But I don't think anybody should ever cater to an audience and try to make something they think someone else is going to like. It should come from you and what you make. I don't think you have to move to different cities to find the audience. The work you make will have an audience, but your audience might not be exactly where you are at that moment. The audience might not resonate with the work. Maybe it's about time and not even be about place. Maybe in five years, that conversation will resonate with people more.
But it was a pretty visceral recognition that the conversations I wanted to have weren't as relevant in Australia. I mean, there are not a lot of Black people in Australia. I knew every Black person in Sydney. That's not even an exaggeration. If I saw somebody on the street, from afar, I would be like, “I know you.” [laughs] And it’s not that other people can't be interested in it, but without that larger culture, it wasn't going to resonate as broadly anyway. It wasn't my audience, but there are great artists there and they have a great art scene.
This might be a bit broad, but what’s something you're looking forward to right now?
I'm looking forward to some vacations. I haven't had a vacation in a long time. I really tried over the winter and failed to take a vacation. Last year, I was moving and I was starting a new job and had three shows happening at once. I really needed a break. And so I actually have some vacations planned now. So I'm excited to take some time to just chill and do whatever I want for some time.
Last one: Is there anything you wish you were asked more often? And that could be in any context.
That is a good one. Well, it makes me wonder if it's a question of, "Do I wish I could talk about my life outside of the art more?" And I don't know that I would, or need to. That's kind of a similar question to about how I used to distance myself from the work and now bringing it closer. I think because I'm so used to having the work at a bit more of a distance, I didn't need to. I also have always had a pretty robust day job.
Right now, I'm the director of programs at the National Academy of Design. And those things do interact and have some relationship with each other. There's always some relationship between what I'm doing in that space to what I'm doing in my studio. I don't know that I wish people asked more about that, but I think maybe I wish that relationship were clearer and less confusing. Maybe I wish I didn't have to explain it when it does come up. And I don’t say that as a gripe against people making me explain it, but I think I have a hard time trying to understand how to present it to people for it to make sense.