Oklahoma is endlessly fascinating to me as an artist - the material it offers up is as vast and varied as the terrain itself. That being said, artists of color in the region tend to have an eerily similar experience.
When my friend and fellow artist, Lawrence Naff, first started getting involved in the arts scene in Oklahoma City, he didn’t immediately find a welcome reception.
“I realized I was not only the only black person, but the only person that wasn’t white.” he says about the first arts association meeting he attended. Most jarring was the organizer, a woman who came over, spoke to another member for a while and then abruptly addressed him with, “Who are you?” . The subtext was obvious.
The experience prompted him to instead look for Black arts associations. His experience contacting Inclusion in Art founder, artist Nathan Lee, stood in stark contrast.
He was offered a solo show, a catalyst for the rapid trajectory his art career has taken.
The history of racial segregation in Oklahoma seems to filter into the arts, where a common euphemism used by art gatekeepers is “that’s not the direction we want to go with” or “it’s just not our style.”
This history is one, we Oklahomans, don’t reflect on often enough: Greenwood, now a district of Tulsa, held the moniker, Black Wall Street. This was because black prosperity was concentrated in one community as a result of the prohibitions of Jim Crow laws enforced in Tulsa. Another example is the precursory case to Brown v. Board of Education. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher delayed her legal education in order to challenge the segregation laws enforced by the University of Oklahoma in the 1940’s. Spoiler: a unanimous vote by the Supreme Court Justices didn’t mean Fishers integration into the class was seamless.
The catch 22 on an integrated art scene in Oklahoma, is that when self-conscious organizations and artist collectives, do need to scramble to diversify (beyond a PR stunt), they run into a double dilemma:
Either they don’t know artists of color, or when they reach out to black and brown folk, the response is (rightfully) apprehensive.
Decoden is a very specific style, and one that art audiences in Oklahoma are not always familiar with. “There’s no way to describe it that will give them an (accurate) idea of what it is, so the closest thing I can say is a mosaic with rhinestones, or I cover things with jewels.” Naff offers.
He first learnt about the style at college from a Japanese friend on exchange. She had her MP3 player covered in rhinestones and it piqued his interest.
“Decoden is a Japanese-English fusion word. The word deco is short for decoration, and denwah (...) means phone. Decoden was originally decorating your cellphone with rhinestones and jewels, but people were later doing their laptops, tablets, digital cameras and other electronic accessories.” explains Naff.
The practice is time consuming. He spends hours meticulously gluing thousands of colored crystals or rhinestone onto the surfaces of 2D and 3D forms. Often the crystals surround a central gemstone or piece of costume jewellery, and cover the entire surface. Designs are created by clustering similarly colored crystals together.
One concept he has been developing for a while, came about when he first discovered the term White Flight.
Growing up in the 90’s, Naff had always thought his grandparents’ neighborhood was black.
“I found out that (the neighborhood) used to be white, until blacks started moving in (...) those are the parents or grandparents of people my age, and they thought, we’ve got these brown people moving in, we need to relocate to Edmond.” (a suburb of Oklahoma City) he told me.
Some white homeowners were misled by realtors, who insisted they sell before the value of the property dropped. “They believed it and ran out. Destroying the value.” Naff says, “It didn’t feel like we built it - just that we got someone’s leftovers.”
The designs he has planned for the plastic-dome surface of White Flight, includes cream rhinestones streaming out of the suburbs, while the Capitol building (represented by a cluster of quartz crystals) is enveloped by white rhinestones gentrifying the downtown. Similar colors cluster together in pockets of browns, mustards and black map out districts such as the community of refugees arriving from Vietnam after the war.
Lighting is crucial when Naff is displaying his work. Even with several, harsh light sources focussed on an already sparkling piece, Naff explains that the final factor is movement.
With his 2D pieces, the viewer is free to move and creates the sparkling. With the 3D works however, he opts for a handsfree, battery operated rotating base which Naff says, “do(es) the work for you and it glimmers even more.”
“It helps it come to life, and it’s very relaxing watching something sparkle. I did research to find out why it’s so mesmerizing. It’s been explained that humans are drawn to sparkling things because it subconsciously reminds us of water - the reflection of light on water. We think of that as a life source.”
Naff accounts for his conceptual shift as a result of the constant barrage of police shootings of unarmed black men and children, as well as the trauma of the recent election.
“The last couple of years have been very stressful for me as a black person to the point where I’ve been preoccupied with racial issues a lot more than I was before.” He explains,
“What was bothering me, was white peoples reactions to seeing (police shootings) - coming up with so many (...) justifications a cop might have for shooting a 12 year old, or a man running away from him.”
Naffs trajectory is evident in his inclusion in a prominent, annual, statewide showcase of the contemporary artists practicing in Oklahoma. The event also happens to be the organizations largest fundraiser.
Recently he was featured in some PR material for the show. 60% of the featured faces on the promotion material for the exhibition opening, were people of color. On the night the photos were taken, they made up less than 10% of the patrons AND volunteers in attendance on the night it was photographed.
I mention this particular incident to Naff. “What that tells you is (...) they know it will be received better if they craft an image of diversity - whether they live up to that or not.” he responds.
At one point, Naff said a previous employer had a billboard up, which presented a grid featuring roughly 50 employees. He found it odd that the image created, was so much more diverse than the environment he experienced everyday.
“Some African employees, the one Korean guy, some white, I’m sure if they had an employee who wasn’t able bodied, they would have tried to get a wheelchair in the shot too.”
He plans on calling the piece either Designed Diversity or The Illusion of Inclusion.
The 2D piece is almost entirely covered in white rhinestones emanating from a large rhinestone. In a small grid representing the company’s mediated image, all the appropriately accounted for colors sparkle in pixelated harmony.