Torkwase Dyson, Whose Work Grapples with Black Spacial Politics, Wins Studio Museum’s 2019 Wein Artist Prize

Art Talk
November 14, 2019

THE STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM presented the 2019 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize to Torkwase Dyson at its annual gala this evening in New York City. The $50,000 prize is awarded annually to an African American artist recognizing exceptional “innovation, promise, and creativity.”

Dyson’s interdisciplinary practice is centered around black spatial politics. She considers herself a painter primarily and describes her abstract compositions as grappling “with ways space is perceived and negotiated particularly by black and brown bodies. Explorations of how the body unifies, balances, and arranges itself to move through natural and built environments become both expressive and discursive structures within the work.”

Her current solo show at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery brings attention to the racial violence that permeated the nation a century ago during Red Summer. “1919: Black Water” presents new paintings, sculpture, and drawings that respond to a specific incident that occurred in the segregated waters off Chicago’s South Side beaches and “offers Dyson a historical framework to think through the relationship between race, climate migration, and the architectural imagination.”

The artist’s connection to the Studio Museum dates to 2015 when she was featured in “A Constellation” (2015). Presenting historical works from the museum’s collection with works by artists showing at the museum for the first time, the exhibition created an intergenerational dialogue around themes such as figuration, abstraction, and materiality. Last year, Dyson’s work entered the collection when two paintings were included in a historic bequest of more than 400 works from the late collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

CHICAGO-BORN, New Jersey-based Dyson has a BA in sociology/social work at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., and concentrating on painting and printmaking earned a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA from Yale University.

“In Conditions of Freshwater” is one of the collaborations Choi was referring to. In 2016, Dyson worked with Danielle Purifoy, a lawyer and environmental social scientist, to gather oral histories in Alamance County, N.C., and Lowndes County, Ala., post-bellum black communities where they sought to “understand the traditions and nuances of black environmental, cultural, and economic placemaking.”

Dyson was featured in “Between the Waters” at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2018. The group show considered the fragile state of the environment. She contributed “Water Table,” a in which she transforms representations of underground water systems into abstractions of the Earth’s interconnected layers, alluding to both Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.”

Also in 2018, Dyson had several solo shows at venues including the Drawing Center in New York and Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago. “Torkwase Dyson: Nautical Dusk,” her exhibition of new site-specific work at the Colby College Museum of Art (Oct. 4, 2018-Jan. 6, 2019) was concurrent with a visiting artist appointment at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

In New York, Dyson was the Spring 2019 Robert Gwathmey Chair in Architecture and Art at The Cooper Union. During her tenure, she presented “Torkwase Dyson: I Can Drink the Distance,” a solo exhibition that explored “how the body unifies, balances, and arranges itself to move through built environments.”

Dyson has received many residencies, grants, fellowships, and awards. She is the 14th winner of the Wein Prize. Established by jazz impresario and philanthropist George Wein, the award is named for his late wife Joyce Alexander (1928–2005), who was a longstanding trustee of the museum.

The prize was first awarded in 2006. The inaugural winner was Lorna Simpson and Trenton Doyle Hancock (2007), Glenn Ligon (2009), Jennie C. Jones (2012), Gary Simmons (2013), Njideka Akunyili Crosby (2015), Derrick Adams (2016), Simone Leigh (2016), and Diedrick Brackens (2018), are among the artists who have subsequently been selected for the prize.