Michael Richards: Are You Down?

By Nnenna Ndukwe

Michael Richards: Are you down? exhibition opened its doors September 8, 2023, in a place Richards thought of as a second home — The Bronx. The Bronx. Museum of Art features 12 abstract sculptures and 25 drawings which illustrate the intensity of racial discrimination in American history. Richards’ artwork captures the sensations of men and women who stood at the forefront of change in African American culture.

Richards is of Jamaican and Costa Rican lineage. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1963. He was raised in Kingston, Jamaica, before leaving for the U.S. After graduating from Excelsior High School with honors, he then went on to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree from Queens College and a Master of Arts degree from New York University.  He spent three winters in North Miami, Florida, becoming well known and sharing his artwork with the Museum of Contemporary Art museum and the Ambrosino Gallery. The Are You Down? exhibition was presented there in 2021 before arriving at the Bronx Art Museum.

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999)

The most notable pieces of Richards’ career are displayed such as Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, Swing Low, Flight and Aviation, and Jacobs Ladder to name a few. “In a lot of my work the metaphor of escape is a recurring one,” says Richards. “It’s about a societal escape. Trying to transcend the societal boundaries that we set up as an invisible trap around us.” His work is a time capsule that expresses the feelings that many African American were experiencing during different periods.

Richards was ahead of his time and used his gift in sculpting to draw awareness to police brutality and racial injustice. As viewers scattered around the exhibition, there was a great cluster of people that formed around the Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian sculpture. “I can’t stop coming back to this statue,” Sholonda Wilson said. “It’s like I go around the room and stop at all his work and find myself right back here staring at this golden monarch.” It is a statement piece that stole the show which explains why it is a centerpiece at the Bronx Museum of Art. Its bright gold color that represents royalty, the stiff stance that embodies discipline and assertiveness, and the sad facial expression on the Tuskegee air man depicts suppressed pain while mini airplanes are pierced throughout his body.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American pilots in United States military who fought in World War II. They became the focal point of Richard’s artwork. Although they put in their blood, sweat, and tears they still was expected to eat segregated from the white officers upon landing. To create a replica of a Tuskegee Airmen, Richards molded his own body to create the Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian sculpture, which is inspired by the folklore tale of Tar-Baby. In the tale, a fox entraps a rabbit by luring him with a doll made of tar, Tar-Baby. Br’er Rabbit” kicks the doll when it won’t respond to him, eventually getting stuck in the tar. The southern folktale is combined with a story of a soldier named St. Sebastian who becomes a saint after refusing to deny his faith.

Richards was an ardent craftsman and skillful sculptor. His escape plan series pairs intricately rendered images with wry and poetic texts describing the plans for escape and often invoking widespread racial stereotypes and the prejudices they reinforce. “The idea of flight relates to my use of pilots and planes, but it also references,” says Richards. “The idea of being lifted up, enraptured or taken up to a safe place.”

“Swing Low,” also known as the “One-wheel Chariot” was exhibited for the first time since 1996. It is inspired by the low rider car culture as well as the African American ritual “Sweet Chariot.” It is in a rusted roman style with a LED blue light highlighted at the bottom with a boom speaker attached to it that plays Jamaican dance hall music.  “Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo” was inspired by the LAPD riots after the Rodney King incident in California. It has a centered male head that spins around on a stand at a slow speed.

“It is a homecoming for us putting this together,” said Claudio Sanchez, one of the co-curators of the Are You Down? Exhibition. Other curators include Dawn Dale, who is the cousin of Richards, Melissa Levin, and Alex Fialho who collaborated to showcase the work.

“I didn’t know where his work was going to go but Alex and Melissa found me and it,” said Dale. “The first show I ever saw of his was in the Bronx, so this is like coming home,” said Dale

Michael Richards

“This was his second home,” said Levin.

Richards died at age 38 in 2001 while working in his art studio at the World Trade Center North on the 92nd floor during the 911 tragedy. His artwork suggest the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people. He participated in artists in the marketplace (AIM) program in 1994 leading to his first ever museum exhibition that year.

The Michael Richards Fund was created as a representation and celebration of his life and achievements as an artist. His mission was to showcase the visual artists of the Caribbean by offering grants to promising individuals who demonstrate an ability and commitment to making substantial contributions to the arts. The purpose of the fund is to support artists on the rise that need financial assistance to pursue their work.

“Through them Michael has maintained his presence,” said Dale. Today Richards has a global presence, said Dale. “Not only in the Bronx, not only in America now he is worldwide and the fact that people enjoy his work it means that he labored for a reason…He is going to live forever.”

Michael Richards and friend

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