Author José Vadi created a companion film for this piece titled, “You Do You,” that follows visual artist Andrew Wilson for a week in San Francisco, documenting a SOMArts exhibition opening and an ongoing six-month performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Andrew Wilson is rolling a blunt on live television. Tonight’s the opening reception for the group show Forever, a Moment: Black Meditations on Time and Space at San Francisco’s SOMArts, and the dorm-sized Zenith rests atop the middle of several stands, each holding a copy of Wilson’s loose leaf poetry chapbook Survival Training. Rooted in memories of Wilson’s grandmother’s home pre-eviction, the text “is thinking about survival as a queer person, a Black person, a queer Black person navigating all these different spaces.”
And, in this onscreen example, that navigated space is between hand, mouth, ground trees, and tobacco.
“Rolling a blunt isn’t something you just know how to do, it’s something that’s taught,” Wilson says. “There’s legacy attached to it because everyone rolls their blunts differently. Some folks will probably critique [my style], which is fine.”
Visitors are invited to leaf through the books printed on Byron Weston paper, the same stock on which official United States government documents are printed.
“This company’s had this contract since the very early years of the country and the paper is 100% cotton, so since it comes from the beginning era of the country that cotton was picked by folks who look like me.”
Wilson’s ability to challenge and visually astonish viewers is palpable on site, through the way he reclaims space across generations and forms of representation as demonstrated in the storytelling of this SOMArts installation, along with his recent debut solo show Equivalencies: Abandoned Bodies at the Museum of the African Diaspora, and his biggest, longest work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: a six-month long installation and performance entitled, Stowage of the British Slave Vessel ‘Brooks’ Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.
A Tuesday morning a few days prior to the SOMArts opening, I visit YBCA to interview Wilson and hear the slow foot pedal motorized whir of Wilson’s sewing machine guiding me towards the gallery’s corner. A small white platform holds two clothing racks where 227 completed kaftans hang on silver hangers reflecting the beam of the overhead lights.
“This is the most I’ve ever performed in my work,” Andrew says from behind his sewing machine. Ten kaftans a day is Wilson’s production goal and after the exhibition, 454 kaftans will remain, one for every slave legally permitted to board British slave ships per the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.
Wilson learned how to sew, crochet, and knit at the age of six from his grandmother before receiving a BFA in Jewelry and Metals from Ohio Wesleyan University, where Wilson immersed himself in everything from fiber arts to ceramics to theater, before earning an MFA from UC Berkeley.
“That’s when all these different types of craft processes that I learned finally collided; I kept them seperate, and it seems like they’ve all hit each other, and that’s where all of this began.”
I realize I’m interrupting both Wilson’s performance and production line while observing the scans on the kaftans paired with the live workflow that replicates and parallels the economic systems at play.
“My body trying to work through the pain or establishing a workflow, sticking to that schedule”—his foot pushes the sewing machine pedal for another stitch, muscle balms sitting nearby—“that’s been the biggest hurdle.”
A chance encounter with Bay Area producer Joan Osato led to initial funding for massive negative scans of the Trade Act. The vessel diagrams the amount of space allotted for “the stowage,” including noting 292 slaves for the lower deck, 130 of which “being stowed under the shelves … the slaves stowed on the shelves and below them have only a height of two feet seven inches between the beams and far less under the beams.”
Cyanotype chemistry is used to print the vessel blueprint onto spools of raw muslin cotton. Wilson uses “the diagram itself as an economic document” while “utilizing the different ratios and different numerical values on it and trying to figure out different interventions for folks to confront those” images. In the case of his YBCA show, the intervention is a makeshift retail store “selling” figurative representations of hundreds of slaves.
Some attendees try to touch the kaftans “because of the ways we’re trained to interact with the retail location, and that’s also part of the design.” When this happens, Wilson takes off his headphones and says, Don’t touch that, before going back to his work.
“And they just have this bewildered look on their face,” he explains slightly grinning.
He describes this act as “the refusal,” where Wilson is “refusing the white gaze, refusing that interaction and labor performance—because no one else is here performing their work—and I refuse to do that work because no one else is doing it.”
“I think about them as spirit containers almost for all the folks that were on the vessel, that were on the ship,” Wilson says, describing the kaftans. “Even through all the tough moments, it’s just remembering that: this is a means to healing.” •