Tylonn J. Sawyer
Tylonn J. Sawyer is an American multidisciplinary artist educator and curator. Trained in the figurative arts based practices Sawyer’s work juxtaposes themes of identity–both individual and collective–with investigations of race and history in popular culture. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Sawyer has been included in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad including the Venice Biennale, Italy; Texas A & M University, Texas; The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, The Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan; Heron Arts, San Francisco; Kravets/Wehby Gallery, Rush Arts & The New York Academy of Art, New York, amongst others.
Sawyer holds an MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art: Graduate School of Figurative Art program and a Bachelor of BFA (drawing & painting) from Eastern Michigan University. Sawyer currently lives and works in Detroit, Michigan, USA.
My work investigates the landscape of American history to present a new paradigm in the chronicle of African American people living in the United States. My practice queries how American history has been shaped by legacies of African American cultural phenomena from the pre-civil war era to the present day. Utilizing media-derived images, art history, and popular culture as source material–I engage my viewers in visual discourse that seeks to heighten one’s understanding of race, class, and gender in the United States. I mine symbols of power and oppression from the historical strata of Western art that have been used to create the standards that quantify what it means to be an American. I subvert my formal training in traditional figurative drawing and painting to create a more equitable and celebratory presentation of American History that accounts for the various contributions that Black people have made to the United States. My work suggests a new understanding of American identity, one that encompasses the complexities of the United States oppressive heritage, juxtaposed with a jubilee of Black American life.
Recently I have been working on two series that capture my practice as a form of historical archive. The first series titled, White History Month Vol I. is inspired by current movements to dismantle post-civil war confederate monuments in various cities across the United States. In exploring the histories of these statues, and the celebrations that developed them into community fixtures–I create new monuments that exist in the form of painting, drawing and video to uplift the labor of the Black men and women who shaped America as we know it. The second series titled American Gods, takes its name from the acclaimed novel by Neil Gaiman, a story that explores the myth of gods immigrating across the ocean and living amongst mortals in the United States. Just as the gods in the novel were brought to these shores in ships, enslaved Africans shared a similar fate. American Gods the series seeks to acknowledge that Black folks are gods that have survived the wilderness of structural racism and oppression in spite of our nonconsensual capture and forced labor. Borrowing from rituals in sub-Saharan Africa where people would put on a mask of their ancestors’ face and seek counsel–in American Gods I celebrate the cultural leaders whom the African-American community has turned to for refuge as gods.
My work has been rooted in a simple question: What does it mean to be American? As I explore the historical markers that have shaped my own identity as an African American man, I want to celebrate the complexities of Black culture as American life. As an arts educator I am committed to providing another unique vantage point that positions my work not only as a powerful artistic experience, but an equally impactful educational one for every viewer.