“Spotlight: Lauren Halsey” Exhibition

The FLAG Art Foundation

poster for “Spotlight: Lauren Halsey” Exhibition

This event has ended.

The Spotlight exhibition series includes a new or never-before-exhibited artwork accompanied by a commissioned piece of writing. It is the hope of this series to create focused and thoughtful dialogues between the visual arts and critics, poets, scholars, etc. In this iteration, the Spotlight features Lauren Halsey’s portal hoppin hood poppin, 2023, with a text by historian Robin D. G. Kelley.
On Lauren Halsey’s portal hoppin hood poppin, 2023
By Robin D. G. Kelley

In Black Christian traditions a funeral is called a homegoing, when God takes the deceased “home” to heaven, where there is no more toil or trouble. Standard eulogies extolling the virtues and accomplishments of the departed are rare. A homegoing service is a space for fellowship and remembrance, where testimonies resemble the blues in their mix of humor, irreverence, and truth-telling. Stories are spun from memories, and memories are rooted in time and place. Music dominates the proceedings. Mourners make a joyful noise, joining the choir in songs bearing titles such as “Going Home,” “Home Where I Belong,” and “Lord, I’m Coming Home.” Then there is the procession. Before heading to the cemetery, the caravan always passes through the neighborhood of the deceased, coming home one last time before going home. At day’s end, folks gather at the house of the deceased or in a church basement for a generous home-cooked supper (commonly fried chicken, greens, mac n’ cheese, corn bread, biscuits, candied yams, sweet potato pie, and the like) to reminisce about home.

Lauren Halsey has seen her share of homegoings. She grew up accompanying her grandmother to church on the eastside of South Central Los Angeles. portal hoppin hood poppin is Halsey’s rendering of a homegoing for her aunt Suzette Johnson and other kin who left this planet way too early. But she flips the ceremony, prioritizing the processional return to “home”—where life is lived, relationships are built, and memories are made—over dreams of the afterlife. Rather than eulogize she assembles a tactile, visually striking, “funky archive” of a place she considered a second home. Halsey described her assemblage as “a very non-linear description of time and space centered around my inherited family and us being in this neighborhood together on 106th Street.” Being “together” is how they became kin. Suzette Johnson’s mother grew up next door to Halsey’s grandmother, merging the two households into one large extended family creating what Halsey calls “a whole congregation of love.”

portal hoppin hood poppin is a work of memory, mourning, and mystery. By juxtaposing signs, symbols, figurines, pictures, and various objects, Halsey recomposes the built environment in order to activate memories and provoke imaginations. “I come in and architecturally re-arrange the block,” she explained, “I’m able to compose in that way at this miniature scale very naturally. It’s fun as an exercise to just reimagine palettes and my little mind when I was a kid, with my aunt, walking to local swap meets, discount stores and mom n pop shops.” But her memories are not reducible to landmarks and retail outlets. There was a distinctive soundscape—the music of P-Funk, Curtis Mayfield, Lionel Richie, 90s hip hop, clucking chickens and roosters in the morning—all of which are visually represented. She is especially sensitive to the texture of a neighborhood and what she refers to as its “palette.” The east side has a distinct palette compared to other parts of South Central, and she believes it has had an outsized influence on her own aesthetic sensibilities. “Hood poppin” can mean many things but for me it is about palette, what colors ‘pop,’ especially in the signs and symbols she pulls from the neighborhood: yellows, oranges, purples, and reds made noble in the company of black and green. Colors “pop” over earthy shades of daily life, but Black expressive culture is poppin throughout the piece.

Halsey’s portal doubles as an altar, a space of mourning: prayer hands, outstretched hands, angels rising phoenix-like, winged black cherubs looking down from the clouds, portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Too blessed 2 be stressed,” the title of a popular gospel song, is emblazoned beneath a cannabis leaf. To the right sits a photo of a framed picture of “Footprints” (commonly titled “Footprints in the Sand”), a well-known allegorical Christian poem extolling God’s absolute and unwavering love.[1] Alongside these sacred tropes small children flash gang signs, a lowrider bounces high toward the heavens, and members of the hip hop group South Central Cartel pose with guns for their 1994 LP “Gang Stories.” To the uninitiated, Halsey’s juxtaposition of Christian iconography and gang culture may appear jarring, but they not only occupy the same urban landscape, both symbolize a state of mourning. L.A. gangs are known for honoring the dead by pouring libations, creating makeshift memorials in the streets, memorializing the martyrs on t-shirts and tattoos. Halsey’s dedication to the many worlds she occupied, her keen powers of observation, her irreverence, and fiery imagination allows her to find warmth and humanity in an otherwise cold reality.

Mystery is a consistent theme in all of Halsey’s work. Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, and ancient Egypt are vehicles for melding past, present, future, and fantasy. Today we call this Afrofuturism. Sun Ra called it “Astro Black Mythology”–the idea that through the invention of new myths we have the power to redirect the future, to create an “alter destiny.” In portal poppin, the heavens and the solar system are one. Figures float through space as June Tyson, long-time vocalist and dancer with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, looks on from the upper right-hand corner. Going home to that final resting place means traveling the spaceways; God’s Sweet chariot replaced by the mothership. Sun Ra’s various spaceships and P-Funk’s mothership all derive from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s 1932 prophesy that the Japanese built a massive bomb- bearing “mother plane” for the Nation of Islam (NOI) capable of destroying the planet. Halsey makes the connection by including a picture of an NOI member peddling Muhammad Speaks and inserting her own hilarious faux headline: “What is Funk? And What is Groove?”

The original source, of course, is ancient Egypt—through and against the biblical story of Exodus. Sun Ra fashioned himself as a kind of Black Moses, an intergalactic Marcus Garvey, but as with so many Black nationalists Pharoah was not the oppressor. Rather, Egypt was the fount of civilization, evidence that Black people—from Harlem to Haiti to Memphis to the eastside of South Central Los Angeles—descended from an advanced society of learning and science. Halsey’s reverence for Egypt begins with her dad, whom she describes as “a vernacular Egyptologist, a kind of ‘hood Sun Ra.” The sphinx that appears twice in this work is home grown, sculpted from papier-mâché by a man who lived in her neighborhood. He had never made art before, but a trip to Egypt inspired him to create this piece and set it in front of his house. Halsey would ride her bike there just to photograph it surreptitiously. Then, on the day rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle was fatally shot, she approached the creator and simply asked for permission to properly photograph it. He offered to give it to her. He had spent too much time and energy maintaining and protecting it from vandalism.

Finally, train your eye to the top right-hand side, to the three young women posing beneath the Auto Parts sign. It is a defining landmark, a portal into the work’s genesis and meaning. She remembered seeing it growing up but rediscovered it in 2010, when she was living at her grandmother’s and attending the California Institute of the Arts. She managed to reconstruct most of it, including the Nikki Giovanni poem, “Revolutionary Dreams,” flanked by renderings of four iconic women—Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone. In transferring part of her rendering to “portal hoppin,” the poem’s final stanza is occluded, but not erased. Rather the final stanza “pops” in visual form, beautifully expressed in the whole piece, through the women it memorializes, the community it evokes, and in the artistic path Lauren Halsey chose to take—to return home.

then I awoke and dug
that if I dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she’s natural
I would have a revolution.


[1] Framed poems or scripture is the sort of thing one finds hanging on kitchen or bathroom walls in Black households, but I also read it as a subtle commentary on Halsey’s art practice. Currently, there are at least three white poets or their estates claiming authorship of “Footprints in the Sand.” In contrast to devout Christians battling in court over the potential royalties, Halsey sees art everywhere, from hairstyles and body adornment to signage and graffiti, and insists on acknowledging its creators. She even names local sign makers and recognizes them as unique artists.

Lauren Halsey (b. 1987, Los Angeles, CA) is an artist living and working in Los Angeles, CA. Halsey earned a BFA from California Institute of Arts, Valencia, CA, in 2012, and an MFA from Yale University School of Art, New Haven, CT, in 2014. Recent solo exhibitions include the Eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I), The Roof Garden Commission, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (2023); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA (2022); David Kordansky Gallery, New York, NY (2022); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (2021); among others. Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions, including The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD (2023); Black American Portraits, Superman College Museum of Fine Arts, Atlanta, GA (2023); Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture, Museum of Design, Atlanta, GA (2022); Fire Figure Fantasy: Selections from the ICA Miami’s Collection, Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, FL (2022); among others. Halsey’s work is in the collections of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Columbus Museum of Art, OH; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She is the recipient of several awards, including the Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize, Seattle, WA (2021); the Jacob Lawrence Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY (2021); Artist2Artist Fellowship, Art Matters Foundation, New York, NY (2020); Harvard University Committee on the Arts Award, Cambridge, MA (2019); among others.

Robin D. G. Kelley (b. 1962, New York, NY) is an historian and academic living and working in Pasadena, CA. Kelley is a Distinguished Professor and the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at the University of California, Los Angeles, CA (UCLA), where he has worked since 2011. He earned a PhD in U.S. History from UCLA in 1987, and an MA in African History from the same institution in 1985. Kelley has held numerous academic posts, including Professor of History and American Studies, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA (2006-2011); Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History, The Queen’s College, Oxford University, United Kingdom (2009-2010); and William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies, Columbia University, New York, NY (2005-2007). In addition to his teaching roles, Kelley has written and edited over fifteen books, including Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (The Free Press, 2009); and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002). His essays have appeared in numerous professional journals as well as general publications, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Black Music Research Journal, African Studies Review, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Souls, Color Lines, and The Nation, among others. Kelley is a contributing editor to the Boston Review. He is the recipient of the Freedom Scholars Award (Marguerite Casey Foundation, 2022) and the Angela Y. Davis Prize for Public Scholarship (American Studies Association, 2015), among others.



from May 06, 2023 to June 03, 2023


Lauren Halsey

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