By Shantay Robinson
Growing up in Venezuela with her grandmother, Daphne Arthur was surrounded by art and politics. “In Venezuela everyone is really immersed in politics. At the dinner table, you’re talking about current events, you’re talking about history.” Arthur’s grandfather was an outsider artist with a lot of talent who made his living as a welder and her uncle was a sculptor. Arthur notes, “I grew up in a house that has a lot of appreciation for art without being explicitly described that way.” Arthur’s grandmother migrated to Venezuela from Trinidad in the 1950s when the oil boom happened and there were many opportunities for work. Arthur talks to her grandmother often about history because she’s very open about it. She revealed to me that some of the Trinidadians who lived in the town her grandmother was from were former enslaved people also known as Merikins who fought with the British against the United States in the War of 1812. They were allowed to move to and live freely in South Trinidad. There’s so much story here left to be explored. Arthur is finding it difficult to trace her history because of our collective traumatic past. “I’m always perplexed by how within the family voluntary erasure happens – a family member might not want to talk about something because it’s too difficult to deal with.” So, Arthur finds herself living in a liminal space with multiple identities showing up in her work, but also with a lot of questions and gaps to be filled.
Arthur’s family put her in piano and organ lessons, which landed her in Julliard’s pre-college program. But at the same time, she was making drawings. Her mother, whom she moved to Brooklyn with at the age of 12, encouraged her in either direction to get into a junior high school that would forward her talent and interest. The junior high school she went to accepted her through the art program and then she got into the art program at her high school. But when it was time to apply to colleges, she took six months off to prepare for auditions and prepare her portfolio. She was still unsure which path to take. At National Portfolio Day she was accepted on the spot for The Art Institute of Chicago. Of her time at the Art Institute, she says, “The Art Institute was great because you have to be autodidactic in many ways. You have instructors that give you a lot of information but if you don’t push yourself or try to navigate through different worlds you can spend four years and waste a lot of time.” Arthur describes herself as curious and independent, and she says the Art Institute fostered her already intuitive and innate characteristics. She describes her graduate studies at Yale as similar but more rigorous.
“I just love making art. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love reading. I love exploring and for me the art-making is just a way of synthesizing all the information I’m taking in day to day.” Arthur’s artworks are filled with iconology that speaks to the various cultures she is comprised of. They are not singular in message because she is not singular in identity. Thus, the conversations through her artwork speak to a broad range of people about many subjects. But Arthur doesn’t see artmaking as self-serving. She seeks the dialogue between artist and viewer. “At some point I was making these paintings, and also thinking about how didactic a painting can be. It’s like a one-way dialogue. And then I started to think a little bit more about what are other ways I can engage the viewer and have an interaction that’s more fluid. It’s really more about reciprocal exchange. And I started to create installation.” Moving away from the standard canvas of paintings has allowed her to reach deeper depths not only in the conversations that can be created but through the formal qualities of her artworks. Working with deconstructed canvases, self-constructed tools, and smoke allow her to exert her energies in divergent directions but yet maintain the important narratives she wants to engage with her viewers.
Arthur’s oeuvre is diverse. No two artworks look the same. And her subject matter comes from divergent spaces as well. She’s created art about the Escuderos, a group of young Venezuelans who put themselves on the frontlines of political protests to protect older protestors from police harm to creating artworks that somewhat replicates the visceral experiences of political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal to the responsibility we have to nature that allows us to exist in this world even as we harm it daily. The Escuderos create their own masks and shields for protest. They risk their lives against police who aren’t opposed to aiming guns at their heads. These kids fight for the rights of the masses and yet there is little news coverage of their existence and work. Arthur has painted a series titled Escuderos where she reconfigures their masks, gives these kids capes, and make them look like the heroes they are. Making watercolor portraits of each of the political prisoners on the two pages of names of political prisoners in the U.S. she amassed was not equating with the amount and saliency of the research Arthur conducted on them. So, she dug deeper and found out the size of the solitary confinement room at Rikers. Then she used tape to shape the size of the room in installation and created an app to produce an interactive experience that would provide information about the solitary confinement space and the prison while also using blueprints of the structures to make collages. For a conference in Finland, Arthur created 1,000 flowers made out of polymer clay, which she installed in the shape of world map, so the audience could meander through the work, pick a flower, and tell her where they are from. At the end of the conference she realized that her audience was primarily people like her, artists and intellectuals. So, she went to the beach with 400 of her flowers and allowed people from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds to engage with the work. She says, “What keeps me going is the possibility of creating dialogue.”
Arthur says, “I don’t like any of my work to look the same. As an individual, you’re constantly shifting and thinking differently. And I also think as an artist I’m constantly approaching materials in a different way. So, each painting is really a way to understand formal qualities of the work through the materials I’m using. But what ties them together is the narrative, the stories I am compelled to exploit, and those relationships in terms of exploration of materials.” While at Ox Bow Artist Residency, Arthur began to work with deconstructed canvases where she started to think of the canvas as a window to these narratives but also shifting “the dynamic of the paradigm of the square or rectangle.” These risks that Arthur takes allow her to let the art lead and she follows. “I’m fluid and I think being multilingual has helped me because I like to explore and investigate and once I feel I have a hang on something I try to create situations through which elements of chance can really throw me off guard or I’ll have to solve a problem in a different way. For me, materials have a lot to do with different ways I can investigate a form and try to find nuance in the practice.” She discovered her smoke paintings by creating her own tools. She wanted to make drawings, but she didn’t want to use store bought materials, so through experimentation she discovered she could manipulate smoke that tends to look somewhat like pencil drawings. Her inspiration came from an artwork of the Mona Lisa affixed to Mahogany wood her mother bought in the 1970s. The edges of the wood were burnt. When she burned her paper, she saw something beautiful. So, she cut color out and explored the smoke.
Her interest in the process of transformation guide her to the work of Vik Muniz and Thornton Dial. Arthur has been influenced by several artists throughout her artistic career, but she’s currently inspired by these artists particularly for their use of waste to create art and use of materials to create accumulation and abstraction. While these artists represent both her Latin and African heritage, Arthur struggled with the history of art, in that she didn’t see herself represented in her formal art historical studies. “There wasn’t a vocabulary or institutional tools for people to access the work. And it would be accessed through “Oh, you’re from Venezuela that’s why you’re using all the colors or something that’s really surface.” She started to realize that she didn’t fit into the art canon she was learning about. She felt very removed from the work, but at the same time she wanted to belong because she was being trained as an artist. Arthur learned that while she can look to traditional Western art history for inspiration, she didn’t need to solely rely on that. She says, “you don’t need to look at some history that doesn’t relate to you or some culture you have no connection with. Just really look outside your window and there are so many resources you can learn from.”
Hear a bonus clip from Shantay Robinson regarding Daphne’s story at our Patron page on Patreon