Psychedelic and sardonic, Janiva Ellis’ paintings offer visions of a divided nation


MIAMI — In RATS, Janiva Ellis’ first solo museum exhibition, singular works created over the past year invite the viewer into an alternate world rooted in the twisted realities of American life. In a series of striking scenes, black figures blend into tumultuous backdrops beleaguered by white violence. The works reflect both the present moment and the artist’s larger experimentations.

In Ellis’ illustrious paintings, mythologies of white supremacy loom large – their physical forms are near life-size and permeate the canvases, while black figures are made small, soft and in tiny, drawing-like forms. animated. Dark humor is pervasive in his work, as satirical caricatures of black bodies make ideologies of racial inferiority visible. Through this lens, Ellis illustrates how white supremacy leaves black people in a constant state of violent uncertainty. The realities of this violence in our government and our criminal justice system cannot be overstated, and Ellis’ work illuminates these harsh truths through grim sardonic marks.

Installation view: Janiva Ellis: RatsInstitute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 2021 (photo by Zachary Balber)

In “Hollow Provocation” (2021) a seemingly white figure contorts and recoils, his body writhing in agony. The all-too-common practice of appropriating black culture while consciously refusing to discern the fullness of black life weighs heavily on the solemn and solitary figure of this discordant work. A peeling muddy green coffin-like structure reveals a deformed body while two large authoritative hands hover above the solitary figure. Like most of the works on display, the color palette is dark, even dark, and filled with mystery. Ellis concedes the reality of violent interaction between blacks and whites under the oppressive oppression of white supremacy.

As a title, “RATS” reads earnest yet sardonic, a nod to Ellis’ signature style, which is characterized by a sense of disillusionment, fantasy, and horror. Guided by the color palette, the flow of the exhibit ranges from greys, greens and blues to fiery reds and luscious blacks, with similar hues positioned next to each other, allowing Ellis’ dexterity to take center stage. Drawing inspiration from the work of other artists, “Bloodlust Halo” (2021) and “The Alleyest oop” (2021) are presented in the heart of the gallery. The first reimagines “A Child’s Grave, Hale County, Alabama” (1936), captured by American photographer Walker Evans in his seminal book Now let’s praise the famous men, who documented the lives of American sharecroppers during the Depression. Image interpretation, Ellis recreates a dark scene of death and decay as an expressive gesture mark hovers just above the child’s grave. ‘The Alleyest oop’ (2021) is inspired by Spanish painter Fernando Cabrera Cantó’s ‘Al Abismo (To the Abyss…)’, which features a group of characters desperately struggling as threatening clouds float overhead. far. In the original work, a large cross sits on a hill in the background. In Ellis’ rendition, an unmarried boy staring at the twisting scene below replaces the ominous cross.

Installation view: “Janiva Ellis: Rats”, Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, February 25-September 12, 2021. Photo: Zachary Balber.

With RATS, Ellis delves into many of his core themes — racism, satire, and white violence. It evokes the feelings of danger, uncertainty and fear so prevalent in the lives of black Americans today. The nightmarish circumstances of police brutality, inequity and everyday racism become horribly psychedelic and dreamlike in these works: the bigger question is when we will wake up.

Janiva Ellis: RATS continues through September 12 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami (61 NE 41st Street, Miami, FL). The exhibition was curated by Alex Gartenfeld and Stephanie Seidel.


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