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Artist Uses Tattoos to Explore Black Bodies

Doreen Garner is an artist whose work interrogates society’s relationship to black bodies

By Gugu Mkhabela | May 16, 2018 | Category Design

Words by Lovia, Gyarkye, The New York Times News Service


Artist: Doreen Garner


Age: 31


Hometown: Philadelphia


Now Lives: In a two-bedroom apartment in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, with her fiancé and their cat.


Claim to Fame: Garner is an artist whose work interrogates society’s relationship to black bodies. Last April, she participated in “Sexual Fragments Absent,” a group art show on black female sexuality at Paddles, a BDSM club in Chelsea. In her piece, “The Observatory,” she explored black spectatorship by instructing a performer in a glass box to maintain eye contact with audience members. “I was thinking about the action between you and a performer at a concert,” Garner said. Though viewers want attention, “when that performer continues to look at you and doesn’t stop, you start to feel kind of isolated,” she said. “And then it becomes uncomfortable.”


Big Break: In November, Garner had a two-person show, “White Man on a Pedestal,” with Kenya (Robinson) at Pioneer Works examining the history of J. Marion Sims, a white doctor whose torturous procedures on enslaved black women belies his reputation as the father of modern gynecology. The exhibit featured sculptures of sutured bodies made of silicone and Swarovski crystals, and received praise from The Paris Review and Artforum.


Latest Project: Using tattoos as her medium, Garner opened a pop-up parlor at the Brooklyn gallery Recess, where she offered celebratory images of black resilience. In exchange for tattoos of cotton flowers or abolitionist leaders, patrons recorded a video discussing the history behind their selections, which were shown in the waiting room. “I’ve always gone into tattoo shops and have never really seen black American experiences depicted in the imagery on the walls,” Garner said. Though the exhibit closed March 3, Garner started a fundraising campaign to extend the project.


Image: Lelanie Foster/The New York Times


Next Project: Garner will be among emerging artists featured at Art Basel in June, as part of its Statements showcase. When pressed for details, Garner laughed and said, “I think maybe it is supposed to be top secret.”

Fighting Skepticism: Garner faces a particular kind of scrutiny as a black woman in art. But the success and timeliness of her show at Pioneer Works reaffirmed her beliefs and left her with a message for skeptics. “You just need to trust us,” she said. “We are the foundation of the world, and we know better.”


Image: Lelanie Foster/The New York Times

Some of Garner’s tattoo artwork:


Feature Image: Lelanie Foster/The New York Times

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