Derek Fordjour's cabinet of wonders

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Derek Fordjour's cabinet of wonders
“Cyclorama” (2023), a moving diorama in which cyclists enter and exit a stage, one of the works by the artist Derek Fordjour in his exhibition, “SCORE,” at the Petzel Gallery, in New York, Nov. 25, 2023. The artist’s show demonstrates his skill and vision across various mediums, but hard questions hover beneath his exuberant works, writes the New York Times critic Yinka Elujoba. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

by Yinka Elujoba

NEW YORK, NY.- If you have ever wondered what driving through a country with a changing landscape — deserts, rivers, swamps, mountains, valleys — in a single day feels like, then Derek Fordjour’s exhibition at Petzel gallery is the answer. The show, titled “SCORE,” is an excellent mash of what may be described as multiple mini-exhibitions, with new works demonstrating the breadth of this New York-based artist’s skill and vision across various mediums: sculpture, painting and performance art.

Fordjour’s signature painting style involves hundreds of paper strips glued onto his canvases to create a distinctive texture before he paints over them with vibrant colors. The seeds for this approach were planted during his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee, when he began dabbling with crayons on cardboards that his Ghanaian parents used for keeping laundered clothes flat and crease free. Although he did not attend art school until his late 30s, Fordjour’s foray into the art world began when he was a teenager under the mentorship of Bill Hicks, his high school teacher. Now the artist, who turns 50 next year, is taking score of it all.

The show, which takes up the gallery’s entire ground floor, is best experienced step by step across its three sections, starting from a multilevel hallway and basement, to a white-walled room and finally to a custom-made performance space.

Up the set of stairs in the multilevel hallway, surreal sculptures are encased in a dramatically lit, purple wall that also serves as a shelf for the art. It’s easy to notice the wall’s glittering surface because of how it bounces off light, and its royal color cements a sense of opulence. The work here is wide-ranging: from “Upper Level Management,” a ceramic pyramid-shaped set of heads depicting the hierarchical structure of a workplace, to “Cyclorama,” a moving diorama of professional cyclists entering and exiting a stage. “Churn,” a pair of upturned legs spinning a wheel may be mistaken for something carved out of metal but is actually polyester covered with rust.

The hallway ends, delightfully, in a theater showcasing two sizable dioramas. A sense of endless competition is introduced here as miniature figures of Black professional cyclists and jockeys are set in an infinite loop through a clever trick featuring a moving background and a moving stage.

The dioramas are, together, two sides of a single sword: On one side, Fordjour is recalling the long disappeared Black jockeys who used to rule the scene at the Kentucky Derby in the years after the Civil War. Jimmy Winkfield, who won the Derby two years in a row, was one of the last Black Americans to ride in a Triple Crown race for almost a century, putting an end to what had been a glorious era of Black jockeys. The other side is Fordjour’s commentary on the rising demand for Black art and artists after George Floyd and how they seem to be in an endless race to satisfy the market’s surging demands. It is a pertinent question: Will Black artists at the top be pushed out like the jockeys were?

Exiting the diorama corridor, down the stairs, one arrives in the next section, a dimly lit basement that feels like an out-of-bounds section of the building. There are spooky men with “Wunderkammer” printed on the back of their overalls, humming to themselves, operating equipment and moving trolleys filled with blocks of wood.

It’s in this dark room, beneath the opulent setting above, that Fordjour’s true intent with his Wunderkammer becomes apparent. The Wunderkammer — German for “room of wonder” — originated as treasuries for royal families to house and show off their exotic objects. But Fordjour told me that his Wunderkammer is a result of a 2022 visit with his wife, Alexis Hoag-Fordjour, to her father’s hometown in Tanzania and grappling with that country’s brutal German colonial legacy.

Tanzanian activists have been putting pressure on the German government to return the remains of their forebears who were killed for resisting colonial rule. Skulls were taken to Europe over a hundred years ago and were reportedly used in the discredited pseudoscience of phrenology, in which researchers tried to establish a racial hierarchy. “I know there are families that are waiting for the remains of their relatives which are in several museums in Germany,” President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania said at a news conference last month. With this background, is Fordjour also taking a bite at Friedrich Petzel, the German dealer who put on the show?

Outside the world of the dioramas and the Wunderkammer, in the more familiar white space of the gallery, Fordjour’s exuberant large-scale paintings bring a lively contrast to the dull brown newspapers layered as a base on the canvases. One might even miss the layers on each canvas visible through the occasional punctures on the works. This sense of liveliness culminates in “CONfidence MAN,” in which a young Black man wearing a jacket of many colors and a golden necklace holds a set of floating balloons — the kind of figure one might encounter on a sunny day at a fair.

There are sculptures in this room, too, like “Flock,” consisting of many upturned legs riding wheels of different sizes, reminiscent of those in the hallway. The wheels and feet here seem to be racing in the same direction with a heightened energy. In this way, professionalism is venerated, the strength of youth is celebrated, but the excesses of success are also made clear: In a painting striped at different sections with dollar and euro notes, titled “The Parthenon of Truncated Ambition,” basketball and football players and figures dressed like hip-hop stars are mixed in with strippers dancing in heels.

Over a period of six months, Fordjour was in conversation with the choreographer Sidra Bell about fusing dance as a form with Fordjour’s ideas as content. The duo created “Arena,” a 30-minute energetic but sobering ensemble movement piece featuring the banjoist Hannah Mayree of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project as part of SCORE.

The performance takes place twice daily (2 p.m. and 5 p.m.) in a tiny amphitheater built for the show. Rapidly changing lights follow five dancers on the sandy stage. Sometimes the small space seems to be squeezing the dancers in, denying them room to freely perform, but perhaps this is the point: that Black people in the U.S. always have to watch their backs.

In the Yoruba tradition, a talking drum can be used to communicate in place of words. Because the Yoruba language is tonal, drummers are known for expressing multiple things at the same time, lacing each drum stroke with hidden meaning, so that in protest, they may even be insulting a king who has hired them to sing his praises. SCORE is multivalent in this way, and is Fordjour’s talking drum: proof that hard questions can be masked beneath a veneer of colorful and wondrous art.

Derek Fordjour: ‘SCORE’: Through Dec. 22 at Petzel Gallery, 520 West 25th Street, Chelsea; (212) 680 9467,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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