Highlighting a new body of work from Los Angeles-based artist David Alekhuogie, I made this for you at Assembly is rich with layers of physical and visual data. The photographic compositions brim with signifiers that nod toward collage techniques and studio processes, while simultaneously weaving in a personal narrative about the artist’s family and his links to a larger cultural moment. At the heart of the exhibition is a conversation about American food traditions and their connections to family, history, and race. Alekhuogie notes, “African American traditions are an integral part of American culinary history. Issues around race, histories of the enslaved, and colonial struggles provoke questions around who the legacy of ‘soul food’ belongs to.” Focusing on quintessential dishes like fried chicken and cornbread, the photographer breaks down the recipes, ingredients, and techniques into still lifes set against a bevy of brightly patterned fabrics that swirl and fold in two and three dimensions.
Alekhuogie’s images speak to a greater theme found throughout his oeuvre, that of deconstruction and the investigation of component parts as they relate to a creative process. The eggs, flour, honey, chicken drumettes, and other items represent the nascent meal before a careful cook imparts their time and knowledge to these base ingredients. By placing focus on the before with a thorough knowledge of the after, the artist asks for a consideration of the transformative act that shifts matter from one state to another. In the same vein, pieces like Still Life with fried chicken (2021) allude to the photographic process (the Kodak Portra film’s edge is visible in the final print) and highlight the artist’s actions as he imbues conceptual imagery with a decidedly personal narrative.
Nowhere is Alekhuogie’s fixation on the studio process more pronounced than in Mom’s cookbook (2021). This visually-dense image, a collection of pages suspended in front of ruffled saffron-colored fabric, plays with the divide between studio sharpness and the murky vestiges of memory. Attached to an industrial C-stand with a clamp, the collection of cookbook pages exudes an air of history. Torn, folded, and stacked together, their years of use are palpable as one imagines the countless meals derived from these dog-eared texts. The fabric backdrop is intertwined with strips of photographs that run vertically to the frame and are printed directly on the cloth. These repeating black and white images of Alekhuogie’s mother, Rene, nod both to the owner of the titular cookbook as well as to the artist’s time spent learning and growing in her kitchen.
The predominance of fabric and patterned textiles in the presented works expands upon the artist’s interest in woven materials and their ability to communicate cultural associations and ideas. In the 2017 series Pull-Up, close-up images of sagged pants became abstract tapestries while also alluding to the confluence of fashion and identity. A 2019 trip to Nigeria (where the artist’s father is from), introduced bright wax print fabric in floral and patterned motifs. In Alekhuogie’s studio, the history of drapery in art history collides with the cultural signifiers of clothing types and of narrative abilities of textile works like tapestries and quilts. But he also takes it a step further and highlights the physicality of fabric, this thing that predominantly functions as a support.
In works like Still life with jerk chicken (2022) and Still life with okra, corn, and tomato (2022), Alekhuogie problematizes the flatness of the images by printing on fabric which is then carefully bunched and pleated to form three-dimensional constructions. The finished still lifes oscillate between sculptural assemblages and obscured photographs, their culinary subjects melding with the colorful backdrops and the physically-manipulated surfaces of the image.
As Alekhuogie’s practice has evolved, patterns and points of reference have emerged. Fabric, appropriated imagery, and allusions to the human body and landscape collide within his frames. In the past few years, the artist has often called upon historical documents to inform his photographic compositions. In Naïveté, the 2021 exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, Alekhuogie investigated the presentation of works in Walker Evans’ documentation of MoMA’s 1935 African Negro Art. Using cut-outs from the actual text juxtaposed against traditional African textiles, Alekhuogie questioned the agency afforded to African Americans to construct their own cultural narrative. In I made this for you, he turns toward oral chronicling and the inextricable mixture of storytelling and cooking that make up the rich history of soul food in the United States. He asks the viewer to examine the concurrent narratives outside of the ascribed museum and gallery system where culture is built not only around white Western ideals, but through relationships, ancestral ties, and the passing down of lived experience.
Beyond the larger cultural commentary, I made this for you hinges on a tangible duality: the confluence of the artist’s photographic language and his mother’s expression of her own history and narrative through cooking. Alekhuogie explains, “I think of these conversations as opportunities we had to connect, to share stories and history through a language my mother is fluent in: food.” The domestic nature of soul food, food traditions, and his own interactions with his immediate family become a touchstone for the deeper exploration of learned traditions and their ability to build personal identities and connections across generations. Interweaving images of his parents (his father’s photo appears in the background of Borrowed recipe 1 (2021)) with still lifes of everyday ingredients and fabrics representative of the African diaspora, Alekhuogie crafts a personal iconography that connects to a wider audience. Exploring the nuances of tradition that operate at the convergence of visual, conceptual, and cultural languages, I made this for you marks a pivotal step forward in the artist’s career.
I made this for you is on view through February 23, 2023 at Assembly, 4411 Montrose Blvd. Ste. F, Houston, TX 77006.