Exploring Black Digital History Through the Legacy of the Nike Air Force 1
Ciara Elle Bryant wonders when a shoe becomes an icon?
When Ciara Elle Bryant was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Dallas, she spent a lot of time in the art section of the library, where she found no books about Black artists. This glaring omission in the historical record, and by proxy, the institution’s failure to recognize the robust, long-lived history of Black art, spurred a line of questioning that continues to inform Byrant’s approach to artmaking.
Byrant, who said she “grew up in Tumblr days and Myspace days,” recalled encountering the work of preeminent figures like bell hooks, Deb Willis, and Arthur Jafa who inspired her to think critically about the data she had generated in over 20 years online. “Seeing how [Jafa] is recording images and saving images and saving clips from videos and talking about how it relates to markers of history, [it] just blew up in my chest.” The artist began to approach her vast collections – including photographs, songs, relics, memes, and news clippings – not only as catalogs of her own experience coming of age in the information era but also as materials to construct a collective history of Black American life.
“What is documentation for my culture, and the culture I want to preserve?” Bryant asked. “What is data? What is saving history? What is writing history?” The Dallas-based artist and educator draws from concepts of physical and digital archives to create interdisciplinary artwork that spans photography, video art, performance, and installation. She will explore these topics in her upcoming installation, “Server: Checks on the Block,” which will be on display at the Austin Convention Center as a part of the South by Southwest visual arts programming. Her first solo show in Austin, comprising a two-channel video that will be projected on approximately 700 Nike Air Force 1 replica shoe boxes, the work will look deeper at the legacy of the iconic footwear.
“I’m obsessed with shoes. I love shoes,” says Bryant. But she also recognizes that “design in fashion has always been built on the backs of marginalized people.” She probes the relationship between consumer objects and cultural symbols in her ambitious, large-scale work, addressing questions like, “Why are [Nikes] so prominent on resale sites?” and “Why are there 700 videos on TikTok about Air Forces?”
Bryant acknowledged that the SXSW audience includes leaders of Fortune 500 companies, media moguls, and people with the power to choose the creative directors of corporations that sell these culturally charged consumer goods. She added that she hopes her work will challenge individuals to consider hiring candidates whose backgrounds can “foster more authentic representations” of the social legacies that surround these objects. When these executives encounter her installation, she said, they will be “in a space where they are dealing with a Black artist making work about how something that is prominent in Black culture is now commodity.”
“Server: Checks on the Block” by Ciara Elle Bryant
March 11-19, Convention Center, Room 3