Shawn Theodore

Night Stars
On Display at Paradigm Gallery + Studio
February 26 - April 11, 2021
Night Stars, the most recent exhibition of Afromythological photographs from Shawn Theodore, pays homage to the sacred relationship with complex Black experiences, both real and imagined, that frame our perpetual ‘now’ for the living and ancestors alike. What awaits in this body of work is Theodore’s expressions on the intimacy of quiet darkness, which rests comfortably at the center of many of these photographs, and the power of African American ancestral continuity that’s experienced through poignant scenes of recollection, reflection, and self-reference. 
Shawn Theodore
Night Stars is a series of moments spent in sacred spaces and alongside unnamed spiritual entities intended to bind conjure to conceptual, mundane to ritual, and self-awareness to the imagined. Featured in this collection are portraits made of bejeweled deities in the indigo-hued ether, the fervor of fête revelers, the quiet stillness amongst the dense foliage and haints of Low Country of South Carolina, possession in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, and sunrise reverence at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. At the center is the viewer, who stands at the bardos of these seemingly disjointed experiences, their presence unifying the real and unreal. 
Mostly utilizing a saturated palette of indigo expressed through a subtle presentation of surrealism, Theodore’s photographs examine Black bodies in motion through spaces that are freed from the burden of reflecting time. Without sacrificing painterly composition, the works engage the viewer in the language of fashion spreads, historical paintings, performance through the continuum of ritual, often simultaneously. In his works, Theodore strives to make space for the viewer as an active witness, and not a stoic consumer. The space held by the viewer is intended to bind them to their connection between and within the imagination, fiction, and reality. The works are meant to express the spiritual connection of the Black body to indigo, water, and sky. 

“To create in blue, one must first understand its powerful nature. There has to be a world that exists inside of the color. A spiritual process is happening that is begging us to look inside of it, and somewhere within it are answers.”

-Shawn Theodore

Shawn Theodore Photography

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Shawn Theodore
Enslaved Africans carried the knowledge of indigo cultivation to the United States, and in the 1700s, the profits from indigo outpaced those of sugar and cotton. Indigo was a cornerstone of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—part of the hidden half of commodities, like cotton, sugar, salt, and gold—that fueled colonial empires and compounded the extraordinary wealth and power of African ones. Before sugar, before cotton, indigo was the most profitable crop in parts of the South, so much so that it was once even used as currency. The slave trade was fed on both denim and indigo.
Shawn Theodore Photography
Outside its strictly physical importance, water was a central feature in the spiritual practices of Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. Ancestral water spirits (simbi) remained a fundamental component of religious practices connecting the living with the dead, while certain African martial arts relied on practitioners crossing the “kalunga,” which are described as “an entire cosmological system that understood bodies of water to be bridges connecting the lands of the living and the realm of the dead.” When the kalunga was crossed the practitioner could commune with the ancestors in a space that was literally inverted, even to the point that people walked with their feet pointing up. The physical manifestations of this philosophy are most distinctly preserved in Brazilian capoeira, though Black combat traditions in other areas hold similar links.
Shawn Theodore
Many researchers even maintain the popular spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds a literal interpretation, as it equates maritime engagement with resistance to slavery. This knowledge of aquatic spaces allowed Black people to creatively challenge the terrestrial brutalities of the Old South.
Shawn Theodore
The concept of ‘home’ in African American culture connects diverse aspects of Black life, from elite suburbs and tower apartments to the old homeplaces of the countryside, to the tabletop array of family photos beside the bed of a housebound elder. The title of this exhibition, Night Stars, is derived from the North Star.  Enslaved Africans in the United States used it as a point of reference so they would not get lost. In many ways, African Americans have invested themselves into actual and symbolic landscapes with great significance, gained the means to acquire property, and brought new insight to the interpretation of contemporary, historical, and archaeological sites. Night Stars demonstrates how visions of home, past and present, have helped to shape African Americans' sense of place, often under extremely hostile conditions.
Within African cosmology, Bakongo philosophers explain the land of the living as a mountain over a watery barrier separating this world from the land of the dead beneath. Each day the sun rises over the earth and proceeds in a counterclockwise direction, as viewed from the southern hemisphere, across the sky to set in the water. Then, during earthly nighttime, the sun illuminates the underside of the universe, the land of the dead, until it rises again in the northeast. The cycle continues incessantly, representing the continuity of life: birth, death, and rebirth.
Shawn Theodore
Shawn Theodore
Within African cosmology, Bakongo philosophers explain the land of the living as a mountain over a watery barrier separating this world from the land of the dead beneath. Each day the sun rises over the earth and proceeds in a counterclockwise direction, as viewed from the southern hemisphere, across the sky to set in the water. Then, during earthly nighttime, the sun illuminates the underside of the universe, the land of the dead, until it rises again in the northeast. The cycle continues incessantly, representing the continuity of life: birth, death, and rebirth.

Shawn Theodore
Afromythology, created by Theodore, is a form of narrative that challenges historical imagination, reflected in speculative fiction, and initially expressed through contemporary photography. By definition, narrative requires a beginning, middle, and end. However, the temporal aspect of narrative can be challenged by its spatial dimensions. The power within the diverse universe of Black spirituality is held in the acceptance of the existence of an infinite duration of the current moment; that a so-called ‘division’ of these moments interconnect throughout reality and surreality, linking past, present, and future into a non-synchronous [Black] parallax, where Black beings ‘see’ Blackness from infinite perspectives, and thus, experience with the authority of cultural and ancestral exclusivity, Blackness as infinite topological articulation and the manifestation of time and space. 
In Afromythology, no clear dividing lines between fictional and non-fictional archetypes or chronological typologies exist. In this space, time is not linear, it is as abundant as air, and all experiences throughout history can be inhaled and exhaled. This was not imagined as a counter to the various narratives of modernist utopias, or even the ideations heavily surveilled, and claustrophobic dystopias. Afromythology, as a practice, aims to (re)connect Black beings to the importance of supernatural phenomena in African American ancestral continuity and to serve as a means to evaluate communal consciousness and place throughout time.
Shawn Theodore
Shawn Theodore
For inquiries, contact:
info@paradigm-gallery.com

Paradigm Gallery is currently open
Saturdays • 11:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Sundays • 11:00 AM - 5:00 PM

The gallery is also open by private appointment during the week.
Appointments may be scheduled here.

View the exhibition press release here.

View individual works from the exhibition here
Shawn Theodore