Visual artist Tyler Mitchell explores black life in all of its magnificent hues. He approaches art with an old school mentality, despite his social media-obsessed hyperactive generation, in the sense that he believes in studying the greats and foraging his own path. While plenty of his work isn’t political in nature – his forte is fashion and, on occasion, you’ll catch a famous face – he creates with the audacity of someone who knows themselves. And not in a tired and contrived 2015 Drake sort of “Know Yourself” way. I mean in an honest and true commitment to knowing his mind and his work – a state of mind that is inherently political. And the political pieces I speak of? They are breathtaking, beautiful, and challenging.
Mitchell’s experimental short film “Wish This Was Real” casts a utopian scene where four black men are no longer hyper-masculinized and bound by the intersection of their gender and race. Instead, they exist in a world where they can play with fake water guns and the only chains confining them are plastic. Mitchell’s spectators are invited to dip their toes in his imaginary wonderland, disrupting this isle of pleasantries only briefly with static and sound distortion. However, when the three minutes and twelve seconds are up, his viewers are pushed back out into the real world.
For those whose perception of folks of color relies upon mainstream media representation, there is plenty for you to unpack. Today, the real world stands as a place where Tamir Rice lost his life for playing with a fake gun, a place where systemic racism chains individuals to antiquated and stifling realities. The real world is a place where Black Twitter is the funniest place on earth yet people who laugh at those jokes can (in the same breath, mind you) ask why we aren’t sharing #AllLivesMatter with each emerging headline of another body slain by law enforcement. It circles back to the question of “How can America love Black culture but can’t be bothered to love Black people?” It is never my authority to state what is the artist’s message behind a piece. I can only state that “Wish This Was Real” left me with my jaw dropped, reluctant to go back to regular programming.
Yet, back to regular programming it is. And “regular programming” in Tyler’s world is otherworldly. It is a place where Vince Staples is regal and poised in front of bougainvillea, Abra glows in a Slipknot jersey, black men are doused in Wales Bonner and freedom plus there’s an occasional Amandla Stenberg cameo. And here we are, miles deep in Mitchell’s photographic catalog with our perspective shifted, wandering in a space where we can be as big as we want to be, where the only thing left to do is elevate.