/ 17 March 2022

Refiguring Tate: Exuberance in a silent way

Nettrice Gaskins’ portrait of Greg Tate adorns a wall of the Museum of Contemporary African Disporan Arts. (Courtesy of the artist)

First time I saw Nettrice Gaskins’ portrait of Greg Tate, whose image I have committed to my memory drive as a result of his visual hyper ubiquity following his untimely death, I did a double take. Wait a minute, is this? No, it isn’t. Did Virgil Abloh commission a Louis Vuitton remix of Tate in portraiture rendered in vida futura before they both died days apart? 

Closer, I stepped. My pupils burned as I scoured the image for clues. Ah, nah. This is visual composition all its own. An assemblage of colourful pixels sprayed onto a welcoming digital canvass as a substitute for a red galaxy. A selfie remixed as pop art. Like Tate’s work, exuberance as an act of defiance. A charming trick to the eye. An object warm to the soul, shrouded in celestial ambiance. 

On the other hand, the image is shocking in what it implies — that Tate, a writer, man, father, brother, lover and artist, matters. And perhaps writers, Black writers, can be rounded, fuller beings. I am speaking for many writers (novelists, critics, poets, writing room TV scribes) that although death should never be celebrated, the person it chooses to snatch should be. And part of it is this. Review. Re-contextualise. Critique, even. 

Ultimately, the most effective art is that which guides us in our search for the power of life that the living and the transitioned live, lived and left behind. 

Gaskins’ portrait, although deceptive for its colour scheme and its seeming over simplicity, captures the chi of Tate in quiet but affecting ways. In a Silent Way. Let’s face it. No matter how many trees have been sacrificed to render our wildest thoughts into essays, books, stage plays, poems and screenplays, no one is actually rushing to consecrate writers on tin cans of soups or willscreens, which, thank God, should remain that way. 

But Gaskins’ portrait tells us some writers simply existed on their own planets. The artist obliged us with her image of Tate for a cover portrait of a special ode to a writer dearly beloved in Azania. In this abridged extract culled from a broader conversation we had, Gaskins drops science and algoriddims on Tate, their shared communion around the legendary Brooklyn dancer Storyboard P’s body-magical realism art and the artistic legacy of Tate. 

Congratulations with the mural commission by the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). Did you ever imagine your work mounted there, exhibited not only internally but outside as a huge mural for everyone to see and engage with?

During the pandemic I started creating a series of “gilded” portraits of people who had touched my heart in some way. Using AI [artificial intelligence] to generate the images was therapeutic not only for me but many others who saw them on social media. When I read about Tate’s passing I felt compelled to create his portrait.

Soon after I shared the image on social media, the director of MoCADA, Amy Andrieux, messaged me wanting to chat about the potential of featuring the Tate portrait in the museum’s sculpture garden located in Brooklyn. Two months later it actually happened.

Would you sample and summarise the reaction to the reprised image?

A couple of weeks after the mural was installed I was tagged in vurnt22’s Instagram post of the mural, which included a selfie. vurnt22 turned out to be Vernon Reid, who subsequently direct-messaged me to express his appreciation. He said seeing the mural in person broke him down a little. He felt it captured his friend’s essence to a “T”. Social media allows me to receive near instant feedback, especially from the people who knew him well.

What do you hope your art piece-cum-mural portrait of Tate achieves in the community and in the metropolis at large?

One of his friends wrote that my piece offered them “another way to imagine him now in that other realm — forever future, forever funky and forever free”.

Nettie, this is insane. Everything around us is insane and yet, weirdly, feels like humanity, or the world we inhabit, is in the middle of a process of rebirthing itself. And as it does, we also bid goodbye to The Beautyful Ones among ourselves. Tate was beautiful and calming in spirit. What’s your relationship with him and, or, his work?

Me and Greg Tate were once on the same slate to speak at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, GA. His presentation came after mine and he missed me mentioning Storyboard P who is known as the best exponent of Flex, a genre of street dance. Greg also talked about his unique style of dancing. Before that event, I hadn’t met Greg in person but was already familiar with his work.

Is what Tate means to you right now the same as what he meant to you before, while he was physically with us?

In 2015, I was at the Schomburg Centre’s annual Fall Open House in uptown Manhattan NYC where my music visualisation project was on display and I saw a young man looking up at the screen and moving his body in a familiar way. It was Storyboard P. I ran into Greg Tate near the centre’s entrance and I said, “Hey, guess who’s in the other room?” I led him to our favourite performer of the moment. That was the first time I spoke to Greg and the dancer. 

What piece of work — essay, book, article, song, curatorial intervention — most affected you as a reader or artist in your own right?

I read his first collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk as a college undergraduate and read some of his articles/reviews in theVillage Voice. Then, I was a PhD student at Georgia Tech and my scholarship was still forming. Around that time Mark Dery had interviewed Greg for his book, Flame Wars. This was the book where Dery coined Afrofuturism.

Do you think Black/African folks across the global oceana, tend to elevate our people more when they are dead than when they are here to receive our love in real time?

From what I could see, Greg was well-loved and respected in many different domains but maybe that’s because I follow some of the people he knew and worked with here in the US. In some ways, however, some honours eluded him such as the MacArthur “Genius Grant”.

Would you kindly take us through the process of creating that gorgeous portrait. Why that photograph? How long? What’s actually your alchemic process like? When do you know a piece is ready?

The image is based on a photo that Greg Tate took of himself. I used an online tool called Deep Dream Generator that synthesises multiple existing images, combining them and enhancing their details. I create custom styles to generate the final images. As an artist who understands how the tool’s algorithm works I choose to use specific inputs. For warmth and human feeling I used what I knew of Greg to make informed choices during the image editing process.

It feels pretty much like film editing, with all the grading, scene sewing, and knowing what material to leave on the cutting room floor. Greg himself once detailed how Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was looped, cut and enhanced, just like the making of hip-hop culture and rap. When do you know the image is complete?

As with all art, it is never “complete” and I usually stop editing when it feels right to me. I’m also intrigued by the improvisational nature of the Deep Dream, much like Greg Tate’s conduction with Burnt Sugar, hip-hop or even funk music. In a Vice interview George Clinton says, “I don’t know what it is that I am doing — it works, and to me, that’s the funk.” I keep working until it works.

How do you feel that your work has travelled the globe and now is on the weekly newspaper cover in South Africa?

It really compelled me to create and share his portrait for his community, for the wider community of creative, cultural practitioners. In turn, people have re-shared and tagged me in their social media networks, so my art is able to travel across the globe to the newspaper in South Africa.

Dr Nettrice Gaskins is the author of Techno-Vernacular Creativity and Innovation (MIT Press). She teaches, writes, “fabs” and makes art using algorithms and machine learning. She is an advisory board member for the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech. Her series of “features futurists” portraits are on view at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building until July. Her work can be viewed on https://www.nettricegaskins.com/