Colin Quashie: Art with a cutting edge, but humor, too

For 2016, Colin Quashie's resolution was to continue making "serious art that no one will take seriously."

Quashie has taken many approaches to connecting with his audience, but, always, there's an undercurrent of anger, of not catching on with art whose subject is race in a city that has been racially divided for all of its nearly 350 years. 

Quashie likens his coming-of-age story to that of a sidewalk preacher he once encountered. He watched as the sidewalk preacher told a scantily clad woman about herself, the woman got angry, more insults were exchanged, and no real change was promoted. 

Quashie then realized, "My God, I'm the preacher. With my artwork, I'm the preacher. At that time, I had no regard for anyone's sensibilities outside of my own, and I could care less how it was received by anybody. I had this truth that I wanted to put out, and I didn't care how it was received. But I watched this sidewalk preacher, and if anybody didn't want to hear what he had to say, they just crossed to the other side of the street."

Shouting is easy to avoid.

"You paint large. You say these things. You essentially shout."

And they hear you coming. 

"Not only that, they go to an art exhibition, with its wine and its cheese, and they look and move on, because they don't want to deal with you."

Quashie's message, which has always centered around race, is an uncomfortable one for most onlookers. It was 20 years ago when he moved to Charleston, and, today, it could be argued that it's more so.

So, now Quashie creates art that puts Oprah's face on the Aunt Jemima box or Colin Powell on a box of Uncle Ben's rice. He's learned to disarm with humor. 

He became an expert in the art of comedic writing while working on the sketch comedy show MadTV early in his career. Quashie says, "Working out in Hollywood as a sketch comedy writer was the best thing I ever did for my art career, because in sketch comedy you only have three minutes. You had to come to the party late and leave early. You have to make the assumption that your audience is already at this point, come in, deliver, and get out. Big joke in, big joke, get out." 

Quashie creates under the umbrella that you can say anything you want to say, as long as it's funny. "It's also a means of disarming the artwork, getting people in, instead of just standing over there with a bat hoping they get close enough for you to hammer them in the head all the time, like a street preacher. Get them in, get them to laugh, and when the laughter dies away, it sticks with them."

He continues, "Any jackass can piss somebody off. That takes nothing. But how can I take this, flip it around, infuse it with even more anger, and yet make you laugh at it, laugh at yourself, and put yourself in it. That's a hard thing to do. It's a thinking man's sport."

Quashie has produced one solo show in his career, "Plantation" (Plan-ta-shun), which has shown in Charleston, Sumter and Philadelphia. The show included Plantation Monopoly, which, instead of Community Chest cards, had Confederate Chest and prompts like "Congratulations! Slave Mistress has mulatto twins!" There's a Plantation coloring book, slave-ship brand sardines and haunting portraits of abolitionists, former slaves and other notable African Americans. 

Quashie didn't expect to sell any of the work. He says his pieces are not what people would hang on their walls. 

"I no longer concern myself with how things are received, because you have no control over that. I'm old enough to not concern myself with it. The things that you think will go over big fizzle, and the smallest thing blows up. You just have no feeling for it, so I no longer care about that."

Early in his career as an artist, Quashie was heavily censored not just in Charleston, but also in L.A. and in New York, so now he just doesn't put any pressure on sales or reactions. He has always had a day job -- now he's an RN at the Medical University of South Carolina --and the majority of his work he actually rips apart after a show. Really. The proof is on his website

He says, "I approach it from the standpoint that this is something I want to do because I want to see it."

The common thread between all of the pieces is the plantation, the homes of slaves and masters. "If you're an African American living in Charleston, S.C., dealing with socially conscious work, plantations are going to be somewhere in the mix."

Quashie thinks that idea of the plantation has certainly morphed over generations. "Here, they've rebranded to romantic, moonlight strolls. They've repainted slave cabins, which was the inspiration for Rainbro Row. I love the way they've fixed them up now, like these cute little summer cabins—I walk in and almost want to see granite countertops in there."

I laughed at this, because Quashie was using his artistic tool in our conversation: he disarmed me with a joke about the present-day slave cabins to get me to think about what they once were. I say that I don't get why the term "plantation" isn't taken more seriously and given more weight. That I don't get why medical practices are named Plantation Pediatrics, neighborhoods are dubbed Such-and-Such Plantation, and that I especially don't understand the trend of  these historic and horrific places being used as wedding venues. 

He leaves me with this response, so I think some more: "Yeah, you do. That's the whole struggle with art. It's well-marketed in Charleston and throughout the whole South. Charleston is a wonderful place to live. It's the best artistic material. I live here and get inspired. It's perfect." 

ELIZABETH BOWERS