Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test - Red Bull Arts Detroit

Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test

April 16 – June 30, 2021
Wednesday – Saturday
12pm – 6pm
20210416 12:00:00 20210630 18:00:00 America/New_York Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test Red Bull Studios New York 220 w 18th Street 10011 New York, NY USA

Red Bull Arts is pleased to present Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test, on view at Red Bull Arts Detroit from April 16–July 301, 2021. Following its critically acclaimed debut in New York, an expanded presentation of the artist’s solo exhibition will travel to Red Bull Arts’ Detroit outpost, which is home to the program’s curatorial fellowship, artist residency, radio studio, and artist grant initiative. For his Detroit presentation of No Gyal Can Test, Smith will debut new sculptures and site-specific video and audio installations, and develop a series of virtual and public programs.

“Like Kingston’s dancehall community, Detroit is home to an important locus of culture within the global Black diaspora,” Smith reflects. “I’m excited to see how the exhibition’s themes of community, site-specificity, and transformation through music and style reverberate in a city shaped by such deep-rooted, parallel histories of economic disenfranchisement and subcultural abundance.”  

Part poem, part anthropological homage, No Gyal Can Test forms a layered exploration of spectral coloniality, diaspora, and the voyeurism that results from transposing these artefacts of a still-active community across cultural, economic, and temporal divides. Smith presents a series of large-scale sculptures comprising demolished architectural remnants salvaged and transported from his childhood neighborhood, Kingston’s Waterhouse District. Filtered through the artist’s transgressive and challenging aesthetic, Smith’s monumental assemblages house multi-channel videos and photographs carefully culled from his extensive archive that deify the women of dancehall as the larger than life figures of his youth.

As part of the exhibition, Smith has collaborated with sculptor Jessi Reaves to create custom mannequins, the British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner to design Red Bull Arts gallery attendant uniforms, and musicians Total Freedom, Alex Somers, Physical Therapy and dancehall deejay Ninjaman to create original scores and audio works featured throughout the presentation.

In advance of the exhibition’s second iteration Smith has returned to Kingston to expand his archive of building materials and ephemera rooted in historic sites within the dancehall scene that have since been abandoned or fallen into disrepair. This complex, unseen socially-oriented side of Smith’s practice finds the artist locating these sites and overseeing the demolition and construction of new buildings in partnership with the land owners. This will in turn facilitate the rebuilding of these structures as part of the expanded exhibition.

For the Detroit iteration of No Gyal Can Test, Smith will present a newly commissioned, monumental work entitled Veranda (2021), which consists of a towering stack of speakers encased in an ornate sheath of decorative wrought iron. A monumental symbol often associated with the boisterous, predominantly male musicians of dancehall, Smith transforms the speakers here into a quiet conduit for fragments of historical analysis read by dancehall icon Ninjaman.

Smith will additionally develop a series of virtual programs for his Detroit presentation, including Dancehall Diaries, an intimate conversation between a group of dancehall luminaries featured prominently in the exhibition who have not all been together in over two decades: Sandra Lee, Paula Ouch, Debbie Ouch, and the original Dancehall Queen, Carlene. Rooted in the age-old tradition of oral history, this filmed reunion creates space to retell the history of dancehall with its women positioned at its center. The women gathered here reflect on their early years in the dancehall of the late 80s and 90s, how the culture has changed, and how their visionary sense of style and approach to life has contributed to the island’s evolving cultural legacy. 

Additional programs include Slack Archives, a roundtable conversation intended to draw out themes connected to Smith’s extensive archive documenting the women of dancehall. Engaging perspectives from the archivist to the women whose own ephemera are being collected, the conversation reveals the archive to be a space through which both visibility is cemented within the historical record and fictions are produced. Smith is joined in conversation by his aunt Paula Ouch, who founded the Ouch Crew fashion collective, and whose collection was one of the initial building blocks of Smith’s archive; the art historian Kirsta Thompson; and the archivist Dorothy Berry; moderated by critic and historian Elleza Kelley.

Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test is curated by Max Wolf, Red Bull Arts Chief Curator, with support from Kenta Murakami, Associate Curator, Red Bull Arts.