In Paul Anthony Smith’s work, people of Caribbean descent congregate against shimmering surfaces. Deploying his signature picotage technique, which involves distressing his photographs’ prints so that they shine, the figures in his photographs seem both present and not, almost like ghostly specters.
Made over the past year, Smith’s latest body of work, on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York through April 3, reflects not only on the ongoing pandemic and the global protests sparked this past summer after the police killing of George Floyd but also on the death of two family members. His images become mediations on the rituals of death and mourning, both in private spaces and the public sphere.
Smith’s photo-based works such as these are highly specific—they are deeply embedded within local traditions. Even so, he leaves the people who appear before his lens anonymous. “They’re part of my lived experience of being behind a camera,” Smith said in an interview. “They’re connected to me.” His images become “fragmented parts of my life,” and viewers are left to uncover the stories surrounding them.
To make his latest works, Smith relied on a ceramic tool, which he used to puncture the surface of photographic paper. When light hits his images, the paper appears to gleam, turning daytime and nighttime scenes—each populated by images of community members of Port Antonio, Jamaica and relatives gathering for a funeral—luminous.
Born in Jamaica, Smith moved to Miami as an adolescent, and later pursued a BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied ceramics. His chosen medium these days, however, is something much different: photography. Having shown his work at the Dan Cameron–organized Open Spaces biennial in Kansas City in 2018, he was added to Jack Shainman’s roster soon after, and had his first show there in 2019. He has been on the rise ever since, and he said he considers his latest work “an extension of my life.”
Smith, who is now based in Brooklyn, documented trips to Jamaica, Trinidad, and London over the past year. The artist selected the images he used from hundreds of pictures, and each bears out specific references to local culture. Untitled (Dead Yard), from 2020, for example, refers a the Caribbean funerary tradition known as the ninth night, which involves a days-long wake that usually begins once the sun goes down, with guests arriving around 10 p.m. (Its name refers to the point when the dead depart the living forever.) On these occasions, Smith said, graveyards are lively despite the morbid circumstances.
In the image taken in a Jamaican port city, a funeral-goer stands against a picotaged fence with a sound system behind him, his arms stretched open, in a gesture that recalls a warm welcome or a crucifix, according to Smith. His goal had been to portray the range of emotions that accompany death on the ninth night. “One’s life doesn’t end there—it goes on,” he said. “The only thing is, you’re not present for that party.”
Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, Smith also planned to visit various other Caribbean islands to survey their scenes. But, with travel restrictions in place, he was instead forced to work with the images he already had. He made the final images using 35mm film, scanning the contact prints and collaging the digital version, to manipulate the original “in a way I think they should be composed,” he said, so as to “break [the figures] down and disguise them.”
Throughout the new project, Smith was preoccupied by thoughts of departing by boat and traveling between Caribbean locales. In his mind, aspects of his family history, like his parents’ time working on cruise ships, mingled with musings on postcolonial Caribbean life. (The exhibition’s title, “Tradewinds,” alludes to the routes used by trade ships that enabled colonial expansion into the Americas.) He also considers the economic factors affecting networks of people living between the two regions, which often result in communities reliant on income from family members in the U.S. An immigrant and a U.S. citizen, Smith said, “I am still thinking about how I fit in both places. All these male figures are sort of an exterior [version] of me.”
Postcolonial thinkers like Stuart Hall and Frantz Fanon have become key in Smith’s process. “You never really feel fully one thing or the other,” Smith said. “Baldwin felt most American when he was in France; with Fanon, he realized how much of a Martinican he was when he was overseas. There are these little nuances of recognizing that someone is not from a place. How you talk, how fast you move, how you stand up. If you look too put together. There are just various nuances that I experience back home that I find strange, because as much as I think that I am from there and these are my people, there is always something that gets called out.”
Ghosts were also on Smith’s mind during the making of the series. According to the funerary tradition of the ninth night, the spirit of the dead is said to pass during the ceremony. Another image, titled Dog and Duppy Drink Rum (2020–21), depicts 10 men standing together for what feels like a group portrait. (In Caribbean folklore, a duppy is a malevolent spirit.) At the far left, there is a nearly undetectable silhouetted figure standing in the background, a dog crossing between his legs. That ghostly figure, Smith said, is a reference to “loss and the absence of various people”—and the artist sees an uncomfortable parallel for this in the fact that those pictured will not see the images from the New York show. “Here I am, making these works for the white cube space with these Black people, but I’m not showing them the work,” he said.
The bulk of Smith’s latest works feature male subjects, and Smith said he felt compelled to focus on them because of the dominance of U.S. media coverage of violence against Black men. Looked at in this context, even Smith’s images featuring “day-to-day” imagery, as he put it, take on a darker context. An untitled portrait of a friend, depicted in an armchair facing the camera, shows the sitter pre-pandemic. Since then, that unnamed man contracted Covid-19, fell into a coma, and has since recovered.
Smith describes subjects such as that friend as “stand-ins,” even though he often knows them well. “I use them as placeholders.” The works’ subjects function as “props for others to understand,” he explained, adding, “When you are using a camera, it’s somewhat autobiographical. I am behind it, and this is like my biography being distilled.”
And as he took the pictures and later picked over the works with a ceramic tool on their prints, he found himself reconsidering death itself. He thought of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and how their images were circulated so widely. “That is what we’re living with this year. There are a lot of images that get carried around of dead people,” Smith said, in a statement that could also apply to his own work. “They become icons in a way.”