Tam Joseph

A more recent body of Joseph’s work indicates another one of his unpredictable shifts in artistic direction. The work in question was collectively titled Great White, described by Hiroko Hagiwara as ‘a series of picturesque and illusory landscapes, which induce us to quiet reflection’ that signals a ‘move towards a more contemplative body of work’. Hagiwara notes that ‘it may seem odd...that an artist of Afro-Caribbean origin, should paint [sea]scapes of blue water and white shining icebergs’. In truth, Joseph has always struck out on his own course.

White House Killings is a painting from the early to mid 1990s that presents, in clear, accurate and graphic detail a map of Washington DC, complete with the Potomac river, its main arteries and of course, the location of one of the most famous buildings in the world, the White House. Beyond the urban density of the federal capital itself, Joseph has indicated the location of the bordering commuter states of Maryland and Virginia. In his painting, peppered throughout the NW, NE, SE and SW quarters of the capital, literally surrounding the White House, are dozens of tiny figure motifs. It is only when we look closer, and reference the figure motifs that we realise each one represents the ‘Location of killings in 1991’. Joseph’s messages are clear: within the capital of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, and often within literally a stone’s throw of the seat of the president, Black Americans (who comprise more than 70% of the city’s population) are allowed to kill each other in barely comprehenable numbers, making Washington DC one of the murder capitals of the world.

If only one thing were to characterise Joseph's output, that one thing would be independence. Though he is clearly committed to the welfare and culture of Black people, he refuses to be typecast as a ‘Black artist’, or to meet comfortably with people's preconceptions of what a Black artist should be doing. Joseph jealously defends his right to paint what he chooses. We have to accept Joseph as being the artist that he is, or we maintain our prejudices against (Black) artistic independence.