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'Church of Broken Pieces' at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

  • African American Museum in Philadelphia 701 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA, 19106 United States (map)

Shawn Theodore: Church of Broken Pieces

by Jared Quinton

Essayist Teju Cole once marveled at the tonal range in the shadows of an image by Roy DeCarava, musing that these darker areas might have been solid, inscrutable black in the hands of another artist. Given the long history of photographic technologies’ inability to register black skin, the artist’s embrace of subtle, modulated darkness was profoundly radical, especially in an age when mainstream representations of African American life were demanded with bombast or stereotype, if they were demanded at all. With DeCarava, Cole writes, “What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.”

It is no surprise that Philadelphia-based photographer Shawn Theodore cites the iconic Harlem artist among his greatest inspirations. Shooting entirely in the streets, Theodore relishes the many ways that natural light can caress the skin of his Afro-Diasporic subjects, from a flattening glare, to dapples and highlights that dance across the face, to dramatic shadows that all but obfuscate the body. As in the restrained masterworks of DeCarava, however, even the darkest blacks of Theodore’s images give way to nuanced tonalities upon sustained contemplation—for instance, the men and women who turn away from the camera and into the shadows, granting the viewer only the silhouette of their three-quarter profile.

In Church of Broken Pieces, his first ever solo museum exhibition, Theodore presents a new body of photographs made on the streets of Philadelphia’s African American neighborhoods, many of them shrinking thanks to encroaching gentrification. A self-identified street shooter, Theodore has always found his subjects in chance urban encounters; some of these interactions between strangers have evolved into sustained collaborations, the fruits of which are presented here. This constellation of relationships and the community it sustains, however fleeting, are at the core of Theodore’s work.

Complementary to the intimacy and quiet darkness of many of these photographs, a strand of performative exuberance shines through. Our eyes can’t help but linger on the elegantly understated, trans-diasporic fashions in Theodore’s images, often commanding as much attention as the people themselves. Evoking the saturated palette and dynamic surrealism of the great Viviane Sassen, these photographs capture clothing and bodies in motion without sacrificing an ounce of their exquisite composed-ness. The self-possessed subjects enact the language of fashion spreads, history paintings, street performances, and mystical rites, often simultaneously.

Drawn from the name of a church close to the artist’s childhood home, the title’s self-conscious invocation of biblical grandeur calls to mind the great titles of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. Theodore once asked a pastor friend about the origins of the phrase, who told him that “it had to do with the tradition of smaller churches breaking away from the larger ones to continue their service to the community,” he recalls. Like the church and its powerfully simple words, Theodore’s photographs conjure a transhistorical, transnational community mobilizing against erasure. They show us beauty as history, memory, resistance, and a way forward, shining the same wise light of the artist’s forebears and, little by little, opening out into new glories.