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Jae Sterling explores race, violence, sexuality and Calgary with debut art exhibit

It would be tempting to assume the title of Jae Sterling’s first art exhibit, Riding Horses with White Men, is a not-so-subtle reference to a young Jamaican man’s response to Calgary and its most prominent cultural event.

Sterling says the paintings are definitely inspired by a sense of isolation and fish-out-of-water feeling he has had since arriving from Jamaica in 2009 as a 19-year-old. But while the title and timing of the exhibit, which opens Thursday during what would have traditionally been the height of Stampede fever, may suggest a direct correlation to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, Sterling says the scope is much broader.

“It’s about Calgary and about my experience here in Calgary, so I guess the Stampede ties into it,” says Sterling. “But it’s about my entire experience here. And, funny enough, (the Stampede) was not that foreign to me. That’s the catch. I’m from Jamaica, I come from an island, and I came to Calgary. But I did grow up on farmland in Jamaica. My parents, my grandparents, we all grew up on farmland. It’s really not that foreign to me, that whole Stampede thing. But what is foreign to me is to see it in this setting.”

Riding Horses with White Men runs from July 9 to 14 at nvrlnd., a non-profit art collective in Ramsay. It will focus on Sterling’s colourful paintings backed by a short film, audio composition and the essays in which he first developed some of the ideas explored in the exhibit.

While the stories told may be deeply personal and specific to Sterling’s experiences as a member of the Jamaican diaspora in Alberta, his artist’s statement also suggests a certain universality in its themes, specifically by asking questions “artists that are caught between worlds will eventually be forced to ask.”  “Can a history of violence be dissected through art? Why do we create art at all, especially in an ecosystem hostile to black culture?” Sterling asks in his statement.

“I didn’t start out consciously with a theme,” Sterling says. “But when I started painting, I discovered that my head was in the same place. So I started painting along that theme and it all came together. The title I had for a very long time and I was only going to use it for a series of essays and then the paintings kind of found themselves in it.”

The work, which mixes portraits with colourful abstract figures, explores issues of race, sexuality and violence. There are depictions of celebrities, although Sterling did not want to reveal which ones prior to people seeing the exhibit, and people he knows. He sees the more abstract work as self-portraits. Like the essays that inspired them, Sterling says the paintings often explore isolation, immigration and “what that does to you as an artist.”

“I am very obsessed with human beings and what we do,” he says. “It’s not unique to me. But there’s different types of artists. There are some people that are about the environment and some people that are about everything else, like politics. I’m about emotion because that’s what I am. I’m about people and what they are outside of all the lines and all the bulls–t. I can’t paint anyone I haven’t lived with. Even when I paint celebrities, it’s after watching a ton of interviews. I’m not just painting random celebrities. There is a story behind every one that I paint. I paint people that I know if I’m going to paint anyone. I’m not doing any commissions of random people who want me to paint them. I’ve got to sit with you for a bit. I’m not going to paint you live but I will need to know what you’re like to put that in the painting.”

Sterling is known primarily in Calgary as a musician and producer. He is a founding member of Thot Police, a collective of artists that also includes Yung Kamaji and Cartel Madras and was formed in 2018 to help develop the Alberta hip-hop scene.

Exploring issues of race and historic violence makes the exhibit particularly timely as people take to the streets around the world to protest systematic racism and police brutality. The political climate, combined with the downtime the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed, had an impact on the art, he says.

“All of what is happening right now feels like my mind and my voice are amplified,” Sterling says. “I’m really trying to soak it all in and make art at this time because it’s what I’ve been feeling. It certainly helps. It makes me feel less alone.”

Although he has sold pieces privately, this is Sterling’s first art exhibit and his first serious foray into acrylic and oil paintings. The work was created specifically for the exhibit in a burst of inspiration over the past few months, which Sterling largely spent in self-isolation. The plan is for the exhibit to travel to other Alberta galleries over the summer. Riding Horses with White Men is the first phase in a year-long, multi-media project that he calls BULLY.

“I was sketching a lot once the quarantine hit because I didn’t want to make music,” he says. “I just didn’t feel like it was the right time to make music with everything else going on. I’m not the type of guy who will be making a “We Are the World” record anytime soon. That’s not a knock against anyone who is doing that to get them through the process. But I wasn’t about to do that. But I did want to make a statement because I am an artist and I am an artist in my time. I always knew I would have a reason to paint.”

Riding Horses with White Men opens July 9 at nvrlnd., 1048 21 Ave. S.E., with a ticketed opening reception at 7 p.m. The gallery will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 10 to 14.  Admission is $10 at the door. Social distancing rules and protocols will be applied at live viewings.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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