Artist Ellen Gallagher was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1965 to parents of Cape Verdian and Irish Catholic origin. Growing up as a biracial woman and identifying as an African American, Gallagher’s racial politics are evident in her works. She infuses imagery from an array of sources; nature, anthropology, social history, art and myth, to create works that seamlessly interweave her sphere of influences.
Gallaghers series of watercolours, ‘Coral Cities’, 2007, are the epitome of this skill. Utilizing research she had undertaken in 1986 aboard an oceanographic research vessel, Gallagher makes tenuous yet remarkable links between the migratory patterns of pteropods – microscopic wing-footed snails, and the slave trade. The watercolours fixate on ‘Drexciya’ the mythic offspring of black African women who drowned during the Middle Passage; the marine flora and coral adorning the crowns of women, offering them an imaginary respite and delicate immortalization.
Gallagher works in a range of media; painting, drawing, relief, collage, print, sculpture, and film, to create multilayered works open to a manifold of interpretations. Albeit, her most famous and more evidently racially charged series, transforms the canon of advertising by stripping happy-go-lucky imagery from African American orientated publications like Ebony, Sepia, and Our World, and inserting cut outs of ‘Sambo lips’ and ‘bug eyes’, references to the Black minstrel shows.
The repetitive prints are underwhelmingly shocking: the expressionless faces void of eye contact, the façade of the equality and diversity promised lingers unsettingly on lips. The linear formatting is borrowed from wig advertisements, evoking the uniformity of racial stereotypes and societal expectations imposed on and burdening the black body. Gallagher notes:
Gallagher studied writing at Oberlin College in Ohio before attending Studio 70 in Fort Thomas, Kentucky and earning a degree in fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1992. She furthered her art education in1993 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
Gallagher’s work has been exhibited extensively around the world: Tate Modern, London, Drawing Center, Gagosian Gallery and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, among others. She has received esteemed recognition in the art world, winning awards such as the American Academy Award in Art in 2000. She is represented by Gagosian Gallery, New York and Hauser & Wirth, London, and currently lives between New York and Rotterdam, Holland.
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