Art as Activism: Thelonious Stokes
The Chicago native on Black figuration, infiltrating the art world and moving to Italy.
Art as Activism started as a response to the injustices and inequalities present in the art world; it furthered the important work of making space for artists of color. The series continues with Thelonious Stokes, a Chicago painter and musician now based in Florence, Italy. Stokes’ work anchors itself in the figurative movement as an attempt to compensate for the centuries of missing Black representations in arts.
—Antoine J. Girard
NAME: Thelonious Stokes
LOCATION: Florence, Italy
MEDIUM: Oil painting
Tell me about your upbringing. How did you become an artist?
I was born in 1995 on the South Side of Chicago. My name's Thelonious—my parents were heavily inspired by the arts and jazz music. I stumbled into oil painting when I was 17. I found a man who privately trained me until I was 21, which threw me into the game of painting and gave me a vessel to express myself. Growing up in Chicago is tense, and it can be a frustrating environment if you don’t have a vehicle of expression.
Chicago itself is such a locus of creativity, but a popular narrative is that it's a challenging space to exist in. Were you always aware of who you were or did Chicago help you refine that?
Oh, absolutely. Certain moments Chicago throws at you end up molding this particular character. There is trauma involved based on some of the danger in Chicago, which is totally real. It's not a myth. As a young man growing up, you have to constantly have that eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head type of navigation. For some reason, that danger heavily influences the level of the creative scene. It's incredible to have that level of high thought in such a threatening space.
Tell me about Chicago’s creatives and thinkers.
Growing up in the city, I was always surrounded by music, but none of my close friends were painters, which is interesting. I had so many rappers [around me] when hip-hop was turning into that Chief Keef era. It’s been crazy; seeing the community, everybody growing up and where everybody is now. Even myself, I was on the full-on South Side of Chicago and now I’m living in Florence. It was such an explosive decision to make because it wasn't in the plan at all, but painting took me there. One of the craziest museums in the world is in Chicago [The Art Institute of Chicago] and being able to go in there and check out Édouard Manet on a daily basis is incredible.
What was that experience of moving from Chicago to study in Florence like?
It completely changed my landscape. Being in Chicago and basically telling my mom, “Hey, I want to push my painting technique to the next level. I think I need to move to Italy.” And my mom's like, “What the hell are you talking about, move to Italy?” All my friends are on the South Side of Chicago, some of them don't even know where Florence is. So boom, I hop on a plane and the next thing you know, I'm in Tuscany.
That was about four years ago now. I went to this crazy classical academy—literally the only Black man in the space—and navigating that exclusive community of European oil painting culture was super interesting.
You're constantly figuring out a way to explore that contrast of experiences. How do you put that into your work?
I feel like, symbolically, I have the secret knowledge—these keys that have been withheld. Historically, Black figuration doesn’t exist in painting. Now, with these keys, I can open doors that have never been touched. I was part of this exclusive culture and felt like a CIA agent in the art world. I was there learning these ways, and I felt like it was my responsibility to take them back and produce work that had to be produced.
I feel like, symbolically, I have the secret knowledge—these keys that have been withheld. Historically, Black figuration doesn’t exist in painting. Now, with these keys, I can open doors that have never been touched.
How do you find the people or topics you want to include in your work?
In Florence specifically, there's just so much old work to reference. I don't even have to reinvent the wheel because hardly any African people have been painted the way I'm trying to paint them.
At “Shattered Glass” in Art Basel Miami, many visitors actually believed that your painting of Emmett and Louis Till was something that existed for a long time, but that’s actually a brand-new painting, right?
That's right. I had to literally create a [composite image] that did not exist of a man and a son from the 1940s. I had to do some digging to find images of Emmett Till and the even rarer images of his father, Louis Till. I had to do a bit more research into the age of Emmett Till, aging him down a bit to produce a new image.
[In my work] I always like to put myself in the time of the image that I'm working with. I'm thinking about the 1940s, I'm thinking about civil rights, I'm thinking about jazz. For this painting, I was playing a lot of jazz, and I went into some of the paint applications a little looser because I wanted to shine a sense of grace since it's such a traumatic story. I wanted to give a moment of freedom, a fleeting moment of clarity and this dancing moment of specific notes of greens and oranges. Ultimately, it looks like an old image of this father and child.
I think you mastered it. You brought a whole other element to the project, which I thank you for because we were wrestling with what it meant to [curate] a show with work by kids of color that followed traumatic losses. With this interview series, Art as Activism, I wanted to create space around the murder of Breonna Taylor and try to heal [the Black community] through art.
Initially, I thought that Louis Till was lynched by an Italian mob when actually he was lynched by the U.S. government. If anybody wants to know anything more about Louis and Emmett Till's narrative, there's a book called Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman. Bending off that piece, I'm thinking about this concept of the Black death spectacle, which was the general theme of that work.
Now I'm back in Italy, thinking about these historical images and the relationship to Black figuration. I just recently started on an entire series of Christ that I don’t want to necessarily generalize as a Black Christ, even though I've been hearing that. Every major Italian painter and European painter did their Passion Cycle [depicting the last days of Jesus Christ], so I'm going to produce my own.
Coming back to your upbringing and your training, do you see where you're melding those two things together? Your entire experience shows up in these paintings, but I wonder how you approach them.
I do it quite literally. Like this new Passion Cycle, I'm looking in the mirror often to reference my own African features to place them on Christ. Me and the world are merging.
I love that you constantly take a chance and explore things. The more figures like you step forward, the more we'll have, as a community, access to ourselves and those spaces.
Art as Activism was conceptualized as a space for artists of color working in an art world filled with systemic injustices and inequalities. Other artists featured so far include Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Esmaa Mohamoud, Murjoni Merriweather, Riley Holloway, Monica Kim Garza, Joseph Lee and Heather Agyepong.