Artist Kenya (Robinson) loves gold. Growing up in Gainesville, Fla., her grandmother worked at a jewelry store that had a bridal registry, and it was common for people to wear layers of gold chains with pendants.
One day, Kenya (Robinson) is planning to replace her chipped tooth with a gold one, she told curator Jillian Hernandez and St. Olaf professors Arneshia Williams and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu last Friday night in front of a packed audience at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
"I love gold," she said. "It serves all these different purposes. It looks decadent and luxurious and loud and just cute."
Her recent piece "Still Processing" — three snake-like rows of gold foil hair-processing caps that she saw countless women wear in the salon — looks like trails of gold coins dropped onto the ground.
But gold is not that simple. In Kenya (Robinson)'s work it takes on many meanings, including cultural adornment and its use in hair, metaphysical significance around space travel, and socioeconomics. Rather than make gold about low-class or 'ratchet' (which has Black working-class connotations) versus leisure class, gold becomes a means by which to explore the in-between. NASA uses gold in the production of spacesuits; astronauts have a thin layer of gold on their visors to protect from unfiltered sunlight. (Robinson) lives near a rocket launching pad in her homestate of Florida.
She is one of three artists featured in "Liberatory Adornment," an exhibition at St. Olaf's Flaten Museum of Art, alongside Pamela Council and Yvette Mayorga, both of whom have big shows elsewhere. Council's huge installation "A Fountain for Survivors," made of 350,000 acrylic nails, is currently on view in New York's Times Square, and Chicago-based Chicana artist Mayorga's "Monochromatic Dreams" is at Macalester College through Dec. 5.
Hernandez discovered all of the artists on Instagram, shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency and she found herself at home, strapped to a rocking chair, breastfeeding her newborn son. She started noticing photos of queer protesters with pink flowers in their pink-dyed hair, and art by Mayorga responding to Trump's border-wall rhetoric.
"I was seeing how pink and feminine aesthetics were emerging as a language of protest, at the same time as the pink pussy hat," the curator said. "To me, there was something very distinct about these two different iterations or declarations of pink as a language of protest."
Hernandez, who grew up in Miami, is the author of the book "Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment." So the themes of hair care as protection and power, pink as a radical color, and consumption not as consumerism/capitalism but as part of a relational art practice, are in her wheelhouse.
"Council, Mayorga, and (Robinson) evoke embodied Black and Latina femme materiality to theorize and tell important stories about how racialized people negotiate power," writes Hernandez in the exhibition catalog.
The installation "BLAXIDERMY Pink" (2021) is a healing space, marked by Council's quote, "People love the adornment and culture of Blackness more than they love us." The fountains subvert American culture's exploitation of Black suffering, creating a space for value, respectability, and the power of everyday beauty rituals. Luster's Pink Lotion, a hair product Council loved as a child, becomes the fluid dripping from the two installed fountains. At the top of each fountain is a hanging, spinning oral sex toy, making it all flow.
In an Instagram Live talk before the exhibition opening, Hernandez and Council spoke about the origin of the artist's "Blaxidermy" aesthetic, an Afro-Americana camp aesthetic that emerged out of noticing a consistent devaluation of Black life, is also part of an exploration of "more internalized femme-phobia."
Throughout the exhibition, there's a joyfulness to design and the reclaiming of craft, which is often devalued as "women's work."
Mayorga's "Protest Fingers," a row of five thick hands, painted shades of brown or gold, with spiky colorful nails (including Louis Vuitton emblems on one), sit on a shelf at the entrance.
A pop/consumer relational aesthetic fills the space, yet it is not a surface one— rather, it is couched in questions and critique of labor and capitalism. .
"I actually don't go to a lot of museums, like museums that are called museums," Kenya (Robinson) commented during the artist talk. "I go to Walmart — that's a museum. I go to the hair supply store — that's a museum. And you're seeing all these objects and the context is there; your receipt is the wall text basically."
Where: Flaten Art Museum, 1520 St. Olaf Drive, St. Olaf College, Northfield.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Wed. & Fri.; 10-8 Thu.; noon-4 Sat.-Sun.
Info: wp.stolaf.edu/flaten or 1-507-786-3556.