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At SFMOMA, Adrian L. Burrell’s Collective Self-Portraits Defy Gravity

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Adrian L. Burrell, 'Regeneration' (featuring a mural by Twin Walls Mural Company), from the series 'It's After the End of the World, Don't You Know That Yet?,' 2020. (© Adrian L. Burrell)

The world ends every day. With an almost mundane regularity someone, somewhere, is facing life-altering changes to the world as they know it: the loss of a job, the impairment of a faculty, the death of a loved one. Over the past year, more and more people have lost the familiarities around which we structure life. With the life-altering effects of the 2020 election, the collapse of the national economy, and the ongoing presence of COVID-19, large-scale losses have become personal.

Adrian L. Burrell’s collective self-portrait photography series reflects the ways the end of the world manifests in mundane and intimate ways. By framing his work as a collective self-portrait, Burrell positions his family as a particular microcosm of Blackness and hopes that Black people across the diaspora find collective resonance. It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet?, commissioned for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Bay Area Walls series, and installed during the institution’s winter shut-down, is a depiction of life after the end of the world.

Like many of the themes in the Bay Area Walls exhibition, including in fellow photographer Erina Alejo’s My Ancestors Followed Me Here, Burrell’s work foregrounds the importance of place in our practices of memory and ritual. Photographed in Burrell’s hometown of Oakland, the images of It’s After the End depict his grandmother, mother and sister in variously staged front-facing portraits. Dressed in all white, the three women appear with staid, regal faces in front of local landmarks. The vibrancy of the landscapes—the flamingo pink of the closed-down Mexicali Rose, the chromatic shimmer of a graffiti memorial for Nia Wilson—swath the women in riches. Burrell’s grandmother, Therether Louis, masked in white, takes a solemn pose in front of Twin Wall Mural Company’s Shut it Down, establishing a commanding presence to stop the virulent spread of both COVID-19 and anti-Blackness. Burrell renders the three women in lush portraiture, inserting their profiles, and their stories, into an artistic tradition often used to depict royalty and world leaders.

But the significance of Burrell’s artistry extends beyond representation. When you look closely at his photography, it’s clear how carefully he arranges moments to speak across disciplines and convey the story he wants to tell. The women don silver wigs intermingled with steel wool. Created with his sister, Antonia Burrell, the wigs evoke Oakland’s history as an industrial boom city. And laced with flowers, these flowing hairpieces frame the women as if draping them in fine furs and sashes.

The women wear church whites and pearls, a gesture to the Black church Pentecostal tradition and its iterations throughout the African diaspora. Burrell’s grandmother sports her wig in a solo shot in front of a storefront in downtown Oakland. The steel wool rises, weightless, in a vertical lift. In this photo, Louis’s fingers gently lift out from her side as if ascending with her hair.

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The poses, indeed, the choreography, of the images are striking as well. Situated casually in front of the Mexicali Rose, Burrell’s mother, Vanesa Burrell, looks off into the distance, a handgun held down by her side. The sun-bleached restaurant evokes the grainy texture of a Western film, while Burrell’s posture is classic Pam Greer hip. Coolness under fire. The attention to costuming, design, pose and location articulate and amplify Burrell’s skill as a master storyteller across the disciplines.

When I sat down with Adrian Burrell to discuss his work, we talked about his material choices, and how they tell the story of the women in his family. While steel wool does gesture to the importance of industrialization to Oakland’s history, for Burrell, steel wool reminds him of someone washing dishes. He was fascinated by its fabrication. “The process of being torn apart and then put back together. To be straightened, put in line, and manipulated in all these different ways,” he says. “To become this object of utility.”

Installation view of Adrian L. Burrell’s ‘It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet?,’ 2020 in ‘Bay Area Walls: Erina Alejo and Adrian L. Burrell,’ San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020–21. (Katherine Du Tiel)

It reminds Burrell of the role the women in his family often had to play, and of his grandmother, who from age 13 onwards, was a caretaker. The steel adornment in It’s After the End evidences the strength of and Burrell’s regard for the women, but it also proposes a creative possibility. What if, Burrell elaborates, you could “take that material that was never meant to be anything other than an object of utility and then make it defy gravity; to turn it into something it was never supposed to be and make it look good doing it.” The steel wool, as a material metaphor, articulates the labor of women who have been torn apart, pulled themselves back together, and now are seen in all their glory.

Pulling apart and putting together. Pulling apart and putting together. The fabrication of steel wool parallels the rhythms of the end of the world. It is the reliable drum beat that calls us to start anew. It is the swing of creation that brings us together, family and friends, to reimagine how we might hold each other in distress and push each other to grow into the future. In his collective self-portrait, Burrell offers us an image of how we might remake ourselves in the rhythm of a new order. He delivers a challenge to change ourselves to adapt to the world as we want to see it. It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet? reminds us that the end of the world is a timeworn (and material worn) tradition. Like many family traditions, it changes over time to fit the needs of those who carry it forward.

As it turns out, the end of the world is only just the beginning.

Author’s note: Therether Louis passed away on Dec. 3, 2020. This article honors her memory.

Sponsored

‘It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet?’ is on view on the third floor at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 6, 2021. Details here.

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