We’re absolutely on board with social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, having to cancel our upcoming exhibitions is a major disappointment. The following pages feature work from the artists whose solo shows would have opened this April: Milwaukee photographer Lois Bielefeld and Madison painter Comfort Wasikhongo.
Bielefeld’s New Domesticity series of photographs explores the changing dynamic of family life. Wasikhongo’s large-scale portraits of black men pose important questions about identity and racial justice. Both these artists approach their subjects with refreshing directness, inviting viewers to drop their guard and simply look. While issues of gender, class, and race are critical to their work, these issues are raised quietly, resting lightly yet implacably on the surface.
Lois Bielefeld describes her photographs as “situational portraits,” driven by her interest in how individual lives are shaped by family, environment, culture, peers, genetics, and memory. She has always been fascinated by people’s habits and personal spaces—and what they reveal. Bielefeld works with her subjects to compose their images, using theatrical lighting and staged poses to create the finished picture. In earlier photographic series like The Bedroom, On Faith, Neighborhood, and Weeknight Dinners (previously featured in this magazine) she’s focused her lens on intimate, often domestic, scenes that include people from a broad range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, gender identities, and income levels.
For the New Domesticity series featured here, Bielefeld says she wanted to “explore what domesticity looks like today—long after feminism responded to the idealized, role-driven society of the 50s and 60s (think June Cleaver).” She created portraits and audio interviews of nearly sixty families as a way to understand what home and “making a home” really means in contemporary America.
For several years Comfort Wasikhongo has been painting dramatic and audaciously large portraits of bodybuilders. Most of his subjects are black men, setting the bodybuilders’ decision to project physical power against our culture’s ugly stereotypes of strong black men: the brutish slave, the dangerous thug, the virile seducer. Recently, Wasikhongo has turned his attention to portraits of black intellectual leaders like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and E. Franklin Frazier.
“As I painted these intellectual leaders and read their words, I found qualities of conviction and self-assurance that I also found in the bodybuilders I have been painting for years,” says Wasikhongo. “As I worked to capture their likeness and personality, I kept thinking about how focused, determined, and well-spoken these men had to be to define the terms of their own philosophies and to work with others toward their goals of racial uplift and social justice.”