Lance Smith is Queer. To quote feminist theorist Bell Hooks “queer not as being about who you’re having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
I have known Lance Smith in many iterations, from gifted youth through anxious and painful metamorphosis, into champion of multifaceted identity. Through the history of our relationship, they have taken on the roles of brother, sister, matriarch, persecutor, peer, instructor, and confidant—all the time maintaining a steadfast allyship that I can only compare with that of my parents and siblings.
To refer to Lance as family is an understatement. Which makes this text difficult to write—not because I have anything pejorative to express, but because family must be handled with a certain delicacy. Lance lives a life in constant demand for compassion. The intensity of their desire for a more genial world is alive within their art. It would be easy to paint a portrait of Lance through the lens of hardship, of which I know few who have suffered greater. Lance has lived within the arrhythmic beating heart of the collective autodestruction that is American Blackness. That portrait would be both dull and abrasive, two phrases that pull us the furthest from their methodology.
My earliest view of Lance’s work was in a small gallery in downtown Las Vegas in 2010. It was a painting of a white dove, soft and gossamer. The image seemed both static and in motion, grounded yet active. Lance’s adept, light hand left no trace of itself in the final, graceful rendering. I stood in awe of its finesse and alacrity, envious of their skill, a skill level I was sure I would never possess myself. I have revisited the same emotions upon every successive viewing of Lance’s creations.
I’ve known Lance long enough to see the subtle evolutions in their work. The softness and delicacy of their older paintings underlie the desire to construct a gentler world. The work is a longform dialogue that grapples with Lance’s personal history and our collective history. Their current work is more about honing that history into the engines of our future. And in that honing, much of the aforementioned softness has given way.
Lance Smith is a decoloniser. Grandfather of decolonial theory Franz Fanon states, “The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the native mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him.” The entirety of Lance’s current exhibition, In the Interest of Action, is a snickering rebuke of Western ideologies, normatives, technologies and values. And in that Lance makes great strides away from a colonized mindset. Lance has conflated an incredible index of imagery in order to equip the viewer with the required tools of decolonization.
I don’t view Lance’s current work as an art exhibition. To my mind it is a portal from our current world into a space where tools for internal liberation are accessed. The technology of liberation is a complicated one. Fredrick Douglass accessed his liberation through the technology of language. Smith points us down this path through symbols.
There are four adinkras in the exhibition. Adinkras are symbols used by the Akan people of Ghana as identifiers of social and cosmological values. One of these Adinkras, a Sankofa, is often depicted as a double spiral heart providing a visual and ideological pulse within the space. It represents the value of returning to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present. A sankofa is an act of perpetual remembrance, a technology of reclamation that resides in a symbol. Lance Smith is a citizen of our collective future excavating our past in order to find reconciliation. Lance and the sankofa are one and the same.
The first image you encounter upon entering the gallery is a large painting of brassica nigra, black mustard seed, in golden hues. Historically, mustard has been used as poultice, medicine, and nutrient. The plant is native to both Africa and Europe, which gives way to a deeper subtext that can be explored through a well known parable told by Christ.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” We can view such sentiments as spiritual or mystical, but the overwhelming truth is that Lance is showing us a technology for self development.
In this painting I noticed the first of several shifts in Lance’s index of techniques. An image of their hand is burnt into a wooden panel covered in an iridescent coating floating several inches off of the canvas.
(There is, of course, an exhibition statement that speaks of Lance and their work in the kind of revolutionary terms they deserve, including Lance’s defiance of racial and gender normatives, and how their life and work dismantle the colonial superstructures that oppress trans people and people of color. Written by the Arquetopia Foundation’s Francisco Guevara, it is much more eloquent and concise than this article.)
Along the adjacent wall, 15 cowries make a Möbius strip. The cowrie shell has a long history as currency and signifier of merit throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The images of the cowries, originally rendered in watercolor with the same delicate hand Lance brings to all their work, are burnt onto round wood panels, a conversion from water into fire.
The video collage cum installation “Your Voice” is another bold departure for Lance. It is equal parts meditation and mantra. Threading together imagery, prose and song by black luminaries like Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron, Anita Baker, and Stevie Wonder with images of the moon and the Cheers intro theme, the artist is searching for a place “where everybody knows your name.” The video is placed above a bowl containing a watered Jerusalem plant with a small framed painting of a face at rest, an apparition on handmade white paper. The individual objects culminate in an appeal to the eternal cycles of growth, death and rebirth that can be accessed by acts by care, veneration and remembrance.
Another large-scale rendering of a flower, Ipomoea purga, a southern Mexican member of the morning glory family, hangs on the facing wall, this time in deep purple and magenta hues. The artist’s hand is again attached but more claw-like in its depiction. The tones of the painting are rich and take on a more sanguine hue the longer it is observed. We are then presented with a series of lithographs made during Lance’s residency in Puebla, Mexico at the Arquetopia Foundation. The rigid line work is a welcome addition to Lance’s growing set of skills. “No Del Cielo” confronts us with a small, explosive image of Lance’s face in black pigment. “Black Orchid” is an image of the flower printed in the colors of the trans flag, representing black trans women and Lance’s continual quest to gain justice and safety for the often murdered and maligned group. The final print. “Water & Light,” is a carving of fire dancing atop a glass of water.
The adjacent wall holds another series, beginning with a self portrait in black on yellow with a subtle cross underlaid. A series of images—the artist’s hands surrounding the root of Ipomoea jalapa, a burning leaf, and something obscured—are fraught with the radiant softness I first observed in 2010.
The final installation in this exhibition is the most personal and clear. It consists of a bowl filled with cowrie shells and a mirror. It is an invitation to viewers to access the presence of our ancestors (and their concerted efforts) within ourselves. It is galling in its scope and dazzling in its simplicity.
Lance Smith is an artist. James Baldwin wrote, “The precise role of the artist … is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” To this effect, Lance takes a thorough and textured topography of themselves, exploring themes of growth, revivification, and the mechanics of identity reclamation. The exhibition traces the trails and pathways the artist has traveled to arrive at a place of personal understanding. Lance has managed to restructure eight walls into a chamber for transmutation. For that I am grateful.
By tracing the application of past technologies to a tumultuous present, Lance has given a gift to all those who have suffered the hardships of a degrading civilization. It is much to my chagrin that I recognize Lance as Las Vegas’s most important African American artist—both in life and work a Black Orchid in the wilderness.
Lance Smith’s In the Interest of Action, part of the Womxn of Color Arts Festival, is on view at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV through Feb. 19, 2021. Admission is free, but reservations are required to ensure social distancing. To see more of Lance’s work, visit their website.
Beginning in 2021, Lance is scheduled to host an online discussion series for teens through the Nevada Museum of Art. For more details, check the museum’s Teens page and Events Calendar page after the new year.