Scores of costumed children ran around me, screaming, as I made my way through the Hasidic area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to meet the artist Paul Anthony Smith at his studio a few months ago. They were dressed as doctors, animals, and, bizarrely, SWAT team members. On that sunny afternoon, the harvest festival of Purim was afoot.
Incidentally, the work that Smith makes, which I was on my way to see, is also rooted in disguise. Twenty-eight, and born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, he adorns people in found photographs, both personal and historical, with intricate, iridescent masks, using a ceramic needle tool. The laborious etching process, borrowed from an 18th-century French technique of making patterned holes on images, goes by the term picotage.
In the past Smith has likened the results of his picotage to “scarification,” and indeed this ancient practice of permanently marking one’s skin resembles Smith’s work in both both process and form. Typically, the result sees Smith’s subjects covered in speckled constellations which often completely shroud their appearance.
A fine example of this work, Masked Woman No. 3 (2013), is on view in the Brooklyn Museum’s show “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” through Sunday, September 18, an appearance that comes after recent solo shows in Milan and New York.
Smith’s interest in disguise began in 2010 when he performed with the artist Nick Cave at the Kansas City Art Institute. Wearing one of Cave’s inimitable masks, Smith had an insight into the potential that disguises hold for revealing people’s hidden natures. “You get this spirit, nobody knows who you are, it comes with this sort of power,” Smith said.
This was in 2012, and Smith had up until then spent his time focusing on ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri. During this period he was also working as an archivist at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, digitizing images from the Hallmark photographic collection. Having grown tired of “all the dust” from ceramics, and surrounded by photographs, Smith came upon his tactile approach to image making.
The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie II was the first to fall victim to Smith’s needle. “I wanted to rough it up,” said Smith, referring to an iconic photograph he used of the emperor taken during his historic visit to Jamaica in 1966. Smith’s impulse led him to tear the photograph’s surface in a consistent pattern, forming a sort of static. Many Rastafarians considered Selassie to be the messiah. Distorting the emperor’s visage, Smith saw his action as an attempt “to cover up this idea [of history] that you’re brought up with.”
Smith explained this all to me in an excitable, yet relaxed manner as he paced his brightly-lit studio, wearing an Adidas sweater, track pants, and a cap, and then told me more about his upbringing.
Smith spent the first nine years of his life in Jamaica, and then moved to Miami with his family. He has returned to the country only a handful of times since. Although he said that he would easily come to assimilate into his new home, each visit to Jamaica reminded him of his semi-interloper status in both countries.
On a trip back in 2011, for instance, Smith noticed a group of workers on the airport tarmac. Something in the worker’s relaxed appearance and the contrasting uniform of reflective vests paired with white collared shirts appealed to Smith. It felt both familiar and foreign. He photographed the workers, later turning them into painted prints during a residency in Colorado. “I grew up in the working class, so I have a lot of respect for them,” said Smith, who depicted the workers with minimal facial details—his first venture into portraiture through obfuscation.
The inspiration for the masked portrait hanging in the Brooklyn Museum came from the Kuba tribe of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It’s about the history of the strength of woman, but also their downfalls,” said Smith. “It was a way for me to show the struggles of life, but through that reveal another greatness.”
Underneath the mask is a photograph of his mother. “She would send me a picture every year and a half or so,” he said, explaining that he blew up one of these to make the work. “I haven’t lived with my mom since I was nine. She lives in the U.K. and I try to visit her once in awhile, so those images kept me up with her and I wanted to turn them into something.” And so he applied that extra layer to her face, making her unrecognizable to all but the artist himself, personalizing her but also obscuring her—a fact that brought to mind something he had told me earlier in the visit: “I’ve been thinking a lot about how memory acts as a surrogate for reality.”