September 2017

by Erica Ciccarone

Erica Ciccarone is an independent writer. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School in Creative Writing. She blogs about art at nycnash.com.

If you traveled down Jefferson Street in the month of August, you’ve been approached by artist XPayne. Not by the man himself—who is lanky, soft spoken, and appears unassuming—but by his intense work that took over six billboards along the historic corridor of black cultural and entrepreneurial heritage.

Photography by Keep3

Part campaign and part advertisement for his August exhibition, Payne’s billboards are sleek and sexy with broad appeal without sacrificing the thoughtful intensity and interest in symbolic icons that we’ve seen from Payne in the past. Claiming the term “Black Pop” for his work, Payne employs a flat style, bright colors, and bubble letters straight off a candy-bar wrapper to depict iconic figures like Tupac, Janet Jackson, and the boom box-toting Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing—an image that won Spike Lee’s attention when actor Bill Nunn died. Other times, Payne creates Africanized portraits of characters like Bart Simpson to see himself in the television shows and comics he loved growing up and to show us that black families are no different than white ones.

Payne designed the project in Metro Arts Commission’s Learning Lab last year, a series of workshops that trained artists in civic practices, and his proposal won funding from the commission. The August show and billboard campaign is called Don’t Tread on Me!, and Payne takes the Black Pop theme to another level by recontextualizing historical images, using two as major points of departure. In the first, Payne appropriates an image with loaded historical and contemporary significance: the Gadsden flag.

Designed by Revolutionary War army general Christopher Gadsden, the flag depicts a coiled snake lying in wait, the words DONT TREAD ON ME! emblazoned beneath it. The territorial significance in its historical context is clear, but the Tea Party appropriated it for their small-government ideology. Payne reappropriates the snake and words as a message of resistance to the encroaching gentrification of Jefferson Street.

The once economically thriving corridor was bisected by Interstate 40 in the 1970s. Though residents and business owners fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, they watched their community’s economy fizzle after it was built. The words Don’t Tread on Me! have become an anthem, harnessing the ideals of the American Revolution and demanding that our founders’ vision be finally realized for black Americans.

“It’s influenced by hip hop culture,” says Payne. “The goal of rap battles is to take what someone else has said, put it on its head, and flip it around to decontextualize it.”

The second point of departure in the series is the iconic photograph of the men of Black Wall Street. Taken outside a brick building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1910s, its 50-some-odd suited merchants, landowners, and entrepreneurs, at most just one generation removed from slavery’s chains, hold themselves with utmost dignity. Those in the front row sit on a carpet that’s been brought to the sidewalk for the occasion of the photograph.

Believing that economic progress could be attained only if the black community of Tulsa shared resources, the entrepreneurs bought land and leased it to other ambitious African Americans. The area thrived during the oil boom of the 1910s.

Payne points to a man in the center of the photograph who stands with his hat tucked under one arm, a hand on his hip. He holds his suit jacket out just enough to reveal a dapper vest, a high collar, and ascot tie. He embodies self-determination, personal agency, and individualism—the very foundations of his young country. “I look at this and think, I want to be this guy,” says Payne.

But in 1921, a white mob rioted, burning the district’s thirty-five blocks to ash. The state government dropped fire bombs from the sky and murdered hundreds of members of the fledgling community. Though the Black Wall Street pioneers had followed the American Dream playbook to a T, they watched their community and fortunes burn to the ground.

Photos of the aftermath are devastating: Buildings are reduced to ash, bodies lie in heaps, hundreds stand in chains. But Payne chooses the photograph of the resplendent men for his collage. He ornaments them with meticulous gold crowns and red boutonnieres, stacks of little green dollar bills at their feet. In the top corner, there’s an American flag. The colors red, black, and green stand in for red, white, and blue, a motif Payne employs for the Tennessee state flag as well.

“My thing is to get people who wouldn’t normally attend the art crawl to see something and be like, this is for me,” says Payne.

He succeeds. The work hits you before you realize you should be paying attention. The simplicity makes the ideas easy to disseminate, but it doesn’t dilute Payne’s empowering message.

Find out more at xpayne.com and follow him on Instagram @xpayneart.

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