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Columbia GSAPP Presents 1919: Black Water

Torkwase Dyson painting Hot Cold
A solo exhibition of new work by Torkwase Dyson
on view at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery from September 27 through December 14, 2019.
Press Release
21 August 2019

The Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) presents 1919: Black Water, a solo exhibition of site-specific paintings and sculpture by New York-based artist Torkwase Dyson (b. 1973, Chicago, IL), on view at the school’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery from September 27 through December 14, 2019.

Combining expressive mark making and geometric abstraction, Torkwase Dyson creates visual and material systems that explore relationships between bodily movement and architecture. Through painting, sculpture, and drawing Dyson disrupts and reimagines spatial dynamics, engaging with pressing issues concerning climate change and environmental justice to uncover new perspectives on geography and belonging.

In 1919: Black Water Dyson responds to the 100th anniversary of the “Red Summer” of 1919, a period of heightened racial violence across the United States. Her point of entry is a tragic episode that unfolded in the segregated waters of Chicago’s South Side beaches. On July 27, 1919 five black teenagers went swimming in Lake Michigan alongside a homemade raft and drifted near the unmarked boundary that extended from the black and white beaches. As tensions between black and white beachgoers erupted on the shore, a white Chicagoan in the water assaulted the boys, throwing stones at them. One of the boys, Eugene Williams, was struck in the head and drowned. Upon news of his death, violence escalated on the beach and intensified even further when a white police officer refused to arrest the man responsible for the boy’s death, yet arrested a black man upon complaints from a white man at the scene. Over the next five days rioting and racial attacks spread throughout Chicago.

While historical accounts often cite the murder of Eugene Williams as the catalyst for the violence and destruction that swept Chicago that summer, details of the incident have been overlooked. Dyson reexamines this story, which provides a historical framework to think through the contested geography of water and the relationships between race, climate migration, and the architectural imagination. In particular, she considers the industrial waste that flowed into the water where the boys swam, which both warmed and cooled the lake, and the raft that they built from infrastructural debris to navigate its “hot” and “cold” zones. For Dyson, the raft—an ordinary object designed and built by the teenage boys, yet often omitted from historical narratives—is an architectural structure of extraordinary significance: a constructed space of refuge, but also a space of liberation.

Dyson grapples with these modulations of temperature and political agency, advancing her research on the ways that black and brown bodies perceive and negotiate space, and the ways that water, historically and in the present, has operated as a contested site. A series of paintings incorporate cumulative layers of washes, colors, textures, geometric markings, and sculptural modules. In addition, she has designed an abstract sculpture that uses transparency and geometry to reflect on the interstitial political and environmental conditions that the boys on the raft created and occupied. The works on view are the culmination of a creative process that has entailed historical research, material experiments, drawing, model making, and exchanges with architects, students, and scholars at Columbia GSAPP, where the School’s Making Studio has provided fabrication support.

For her exhibition at GSAPP, Dyson has developed a new body of work that harnesses artistic improvisation, philosophical meditation, and critical thinking about the ways that climate change disproportionately affects people of color around the world. It connects her interest in emerging discourses on the plantationocene with her idea of “Black Compositional Thought,” a working term that considers how spatial conditions—paths, throughways, water, architecture, and geographies—are composed by black bodies and how the attendant properties of energy, space, and objects interact as networks of liberation.

The exhibition 1919: Black Water is organized by Columbia GSAPP and curated by Irene Sunwoo, GSAPP Director of Exhibitions and Curator of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery.

On September 27 Dyson will be in discussion with invited guests, followed by an opening reception. Additional gallery programming will be announced at a later date. The exhibition 1919: Black Water and related events are free and open to the public.

1919: Black Water reinforces Columbia GSAPP’s commitment to environmental concerns, which is expressed through the School’s progressive approach to architectural education and its robust program of public events. The School continually re-examines the ways that pedagogy can respond to the expanding purview of global architectural practice and the forces that shape the built environment—such as climate change, sustainability, emerging technologies, and social equity—and provides a public platform to advance discussions on how the field engages with these issues. In addition to the exhibition 1919: Black Water, during the Fall 2019 semester GSAPP is also launching “Public Works for a Green New Deal,” an initiative sponsored by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture and part of the Center’s ongoing “Power: Infrastructure in America” project. “Public Works” assembles research, design studios, and public programs that respond to the social, technical, and political contours of the Green New Deal resolution. Events will take place at Columbia GSAPP, as well as at partner institutions including the University of Pennsylvania and the Queens Museum.

About Torkwase Dyson
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Torkwase Dyson spent her developmental years between North Carolina and Mississippi. Traversing these regions helped her develop a fundamental sensitivity towards urban development, southern landscape, and black spatial justice. During her years at Tougaloo College, where she majored in sociology and double minored in social work and fine art, she began to examine the spatial dynamics of black history and how these histories were connected geographically. Over the next 10 years, Dyson traveled to Africa and South and Central America to strategize with communities of color on ways to attain resource equality. During this time she earned her first Bachelor of Sociology at Tougaloo College, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her Master of Fine Arts in painting from the Yale School of Art. Her work has been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and more. In 2016 Dyson was elected to the board of the Architecture League of New York as Vice President of Visual Arts. In 2019 she was named the Robert Gwathmey Chair at the Cooper Union, a rotating interdisciplinary professorship in art and architecture.
About GSAPP Making Studio
The newly remodeled Making Studio at GSAPP combines a range of workshops and project spaces for fabrication, 3D printing, robotics and multi-modal making, rapid prototyping, digital cutting and tooling, alongside a space for large-scale mockups and experimentation. Cross-program workshops and 24-hour access enable students to explore, stage, tinker, reuse, and adapt. The Fabrication Lab provides material, technical, and design support for all modeling, building, and making endeavors of GSAPP students. Its mission is to provide a continuum of support for physical experimentation and production, from heavy duty sheet goods to precision work on fine models.
About Columbia GSAPP

Among the world’s leading research universities, Columbia University in the City of New York continuously seeks to advance the frontiers of scholarship and foster a campus community deeply engaged in the complex issues of our time. Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (Columbia GSAPP) offers a range of programs in architecture, historic preservation, planning, real estate development, and urban design that bring together imagination, experimentation, and critical thinking towards new forms of practice. GSAPP is committed to shaping a more equitable, sustainable, and creative world by engaging architecture and the built environment from diverse and global perspectives. The school functions as an urban condenser of ideas and drives innovation and change through the leadership of its faculty, the excellence of its academic programs, the expansion of interdisciplinary opportunities as well as the richness of its research initiatives and events.

More information about Columbia GSAPP’s academic programs and research initiatives, public exhibitions and events, and publications can be found at arch.columbia.edu.