Kori Newkirk

Kori Newkirk is a young artist with exciting promise. Like many young African Americans who value the memory of the struggle of their race, Newkirk recalls vividly the stories his father used to tell him about his family's history. His father purposefully wanted to keep the memories of his ancestors and their struggles alive. Through his art, Newkirk likes to combine these memories with his individual experience, thus keeping in mind how he and his community were shaped by the efforts of others. His philosophy is that all of us are beneficiaries of others who have sacrificed for us, suffered for us, loved us and worked for us.

Newkirk has studied the documented and recorded history of African Americans, as well as investigated his own family history. He knows that his family name Newkirk, for instance, is an Anglicization of a Dutch name, Nieuwkirk. Cornelisse van Nieuwkirk, a white slave master, emigrated from Holland to America in 1659, and it was his descendants who imported Newkirk's forefathers to America in the late 18th century. This precise knowledge of his family's role in the history of the country and their ensuing struggles has led Newkirk to create works of art that are poignant visual reminders of the inhumanity of racism.

"I'm sure somewhere along the line someone in my family [was] lynched...so, I'm combining my memories of swinging on a tire hanging from a tree, with a family story I was told when I was young about someone being chased down and hung."

Newkirk's resulting piece is a set of five automobile tires hanging in a row, each suspended by a thick noose with a hangman's knot. In the center of each tire framed by the black, worn case are photographs of members of Newkirk's family and their friends. (When Newkirk told his father about his new work, other relatives sent him a multitude of old, often unidentified photos of all sizes and quality.)

The photographs fill the center of each tire; they are arranged in a provisional, temporary fashion. Even so, each image remains in the mind of the viewer, just as each tire takes possession of a certain territory of attention. One tire in isolation would be less effective than all of them viewed together. Viewing them successively is viewing them in time; one sees generations, active and, alive. The tire-holes team with the activities of humanity. One almost hears their voices. They speak in the viewer's mind with the joys of past lives, a murmur of life heard over a scream of suffering and injustice. Newkirk prefers to have his work shown in enclosed spaces, while at the same time having the space enclose the viewer. The tight space masters the viewer's reaction to the space; one cannot simply walk by.

Despite the obvious "heaviness" or seriousness of Newkirk's piece, there is still an enticing, even poetic ambiguity within the form that makes the viewer feel uncertain whether the object is a forceful political statement, or a whimsical childhood memory of happier times. Perhaps it is neither, but rather the work evokes the continuing drama of the survival of black families, while trying to protect the innocence of childhood.

Newkirk's art is inseparable from his African American heritage: it is part of the struggle of both his family and his race. Because the piece is so strong, it does not possess the subtlety of content a less explicit work would have. Significantly, it is the mixture of a childhood innocence of the world, and the nonetheless terrifying presence of the world around the child that makes the work so moving, and its message so unmistakable.

by Leonard Simon

Kori Newkirk is a visual artist working in mixed-media and installation. He was born in the Bronx and spent the majority of his youth in Central New York. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently working on his Master of Fine Arts as a Chancellor's Fellow in the Studio Art program at the University of California at Irvine.

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