Tracey Rose, Artist and Provocateur, Gets a Major U.S. Retrospective

The artist Tracey Rose remembers it vividly.

Back home in South Africa around 40 years ago, she was attending an all-white Catholic school — one of the first children of color to do so during apartheid. One day, her class was given an assignment to do a drawing of “The Last Supper.”

Her mother, who was the artist of the family, ended up drawing the picture for her, but instructed her, “Don’t tell anybody you didn’t do it. If they ask, say you did it.”

The next day at school, when the students were comparing their drawings, they were amazed by Ms. Rose’s. Many of them ripped up their own drawings, gave her their books, and asked her to draw their pictures.

“All I did was copy my mom’s line,” Ms. Rose remembered.

She ended up drawing about seven Last Suppers that day.

The students were screaming “Tracey’s an artist!”

“And that was the moment I got respect,” Ms. Rose said.

That was also the moment that she discovered that she was an artist. Which — despite the fact that she has had shows in Johannesburg, Los Angeles and New York over the past twenty-odd years — is something that she only started confessing to a few years ago, as a major retrospective on her career began to come together.

“OK, now I can say that without any kind of doubt,” she said.

Ms. Rose had her first solo exhibition in 2000, at Christian Haye’s gallery, the Project, in Harlem, N.Y. At that time, Mr. Haye was determined to highlight talented artists that no one was showing. Ms. Rose was one of them; she would go on to have three more shows at the gallery.

Now, twenty-three years later, Ms. Rose has her most expansive U.S. exhibition yet, as that career retrospective, first organized and shown by the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, is on display through Sept. 10 at the Queens Museum.

Last month, sitting on a couch in the lobby as some of her works were installed in four gallery spaces, Ms. Rose considered the show’s New York location.

“It’s my art home,” she said. “I’ve come back to the place where people get me.”

The show, “Tracey Rose: Shooting Down Babylon,” includes works created from the 1990s to the present, spanning mixed media, photography, film and installation.

The pieces often speak to post-colonial complexities, such as repatriation, recompense and reckoning, and many have roots in Ms. Rose’s native South Africa.

In “Span II,” for instance, which the artist performed in 1997 at the Johannesburg Biennale — memorialized in a photograph at the Queens Museum exhibition — the artist sat in a glass box and shaved off her body hair, then knotted the strands like rosary beads.

Ms. Rose explained, “for racial classifications in the South African government, the party used to stick a pencil in your hair. If it slid out, you were classified as white or colored. And if the pencil stayed in, you were considered Black.” This performance piece, then, served as a way for her to interrogate the race-based variations on privilege.

“Span II” isn’t the only work in which Ms. Rose has cast herself as a part of the piece. Like fellow artists Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, Ms. Rose often makes herself the medium as a way to confront — and delve into — the politics of identity, playing with perceptions around race, sex and gender.

In the video “Ciao Bella,” which she produced in 2001, Ms. Rose portrays various feminine roles, including a nun, a mermaid and Marie Antoinette, playing out an intense, intriguing narrative. Ms. Rose explained that the dozen characters in the film “are also in the space of the Twelve Apostles, and they are all kind of like the Jesus figure, in a sense.”

Lauren Haynes, director of curatorial affairs and programs at the Queens Museum, who worked closely with Ms. Rose and the Zeitz on bringing the exhibition to Queens, expressed the significance of Ms. Rose’s work being shown on this scale in New York, and frankly, in the United States.

“Tracey’s work, for me, isn’t afraid to talk about topics such as post-apartheid South Africa, racism, all these things that are still incredibly relevant now, and especially in a U.S. context,” Ms. Haynes said.

One mixed-media piece, in particular, speaks to a topic that’s particularly relevant in the United States.

Gesturing at a colorful work, Ms. Rose explained, “I did this one with my son before he was even one year old.” The playful piece, “Portrait for a Young Black Man,” explores the creativity and freedom of a childhood imagination, representing the visions of a young Black child — with the hopes of not having much to fear at such an early age.

“My son had just been born around the time Trayvon Martin was killed, and I thought about the birthing of a young Black man, and that level of responsibility that holds,” she said.

It’s not the only work in “Shooting Down Babylon” that was inspired by the African American experience. For Ms. Rose, Black Americans have been right on the forefront of all kinds of humanitarian movements around the world.

She said, “What they’ve done with their lives, and their bodies, actually had ripple effects of liberation for others. And it never does get acknowledged.”

She added, “I don’t know if Black American people understand the enormous impact they have globally. Not just culturally in terms of music, fashion and even language, but in terms of self-esteem. Something that basic, like your self-worth, how that has such a huge impact on people who don’t have access to anything else.”

Ms. Rose said she felt like it’s “right on time” for the larger world to generally be catching up to what she’s been investigating in her art for years.

“You don’t make art, you make history,” she said.

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