Shawn Theodore, better known to his 67,000 Instagram followers as _XST (pronounced “Exist”), opened his first exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia called "Church of Broken Pieces," a photographic exploration of changing identities of black America.
Theodore’s work contextualizes and collaborates with black Americans who represent different parts of distinctly black neighborhoods, even as displacement, gentrification, socioeconomic disparity, and violence threaten to halt progress.
Often collage-like and set in high-contrast color, his intimate street portraits have garnered much attention for a particular style of conceptual photography. What’s special about Temple grad and Philly native Theodore is his dedication to connecting deeply with the people he’s photographing -- they often become friends.
Your Instagram description reads: "Scattered moments and observations as seen across a vanishing landscape of African American neighborhoods."
My initial concept was to come from a preservationist approach. I don’t do it as a documentarian or a photojournalist, but rather in an artistic style. I like the idea of capturing photographs of people in spaces that are uniquely African American in many ways. It may not be completely apparent to anyone who's not African American but there’s a subtle language of color and harmony, some types of architecture you only see in black neighborhoods. These areas are shrinking due to all sorts of huge transformations, be it socioeconomic shifts, or gentrification, and people are being pushed out of the neighborhoods in which I like to shoot. The canvas has become smaller every year.
Describe your artistic process.
What we have here in America, and in particular with African American neighborhoods, are commonalities of how we express ourselves in our neighborhoods. If you were to place a certain set of colors together and asked a few people what they were reminded of, then someone might say that it looks familiar, something they’ve seen before. Color, texture, and architecture are meaningful to any culture. So I can go from one city to another city looking for those commonalities and come out with work that is similar across the board, not only geographically but also across time. So when I’m out shooting, these are the things that I am looking for. I want to shoot and preserve the images of the people I encounter. Their stories often intertwine with what I do.
What's the inspiration for the name of your exhibition?
Church of Broken Pieces is an actual church out in West Oak Lane. I’ve always loved that name. I thought it was the most amazing name to name a church. I have a friend who’s a pastor there, and she explained to me that the name was a nod to the Baptist tradition of the church creating ministries that would break away and form new churches. For me the name was a nod to my own neighborhood, to let them know that I still care.
Do you feel that there is an underrepresentation in black art?
I do believe we are on the tail end of underrepresentation of black artists and black art and black media. I hope to speak for some of my peers on this because it’s something we all have in our hearts. We are most concerned with identity and agency and proper representation of the myriad of ideas around blackness. Just being able to say this is what blackness is and this is what it’s not is the bigger problem. One of the bigger problems in street photography is that there are odd overexposures to two extremes, and not enough in the middle. You have street photography that represents some aspects, like poverty and crime, and on the other end you see a lot of sexual exploitation. I don’t think we’re ever going to see a time where we’re all going to be happy and that’s OK, too. But as long as there are black artists creating conscientious work that’s honest about what’s in our conversations, then I think that’s when we’ll see a lot of the change we’re invested in and hopeful about.
Would you say that your photography is primarily political?
I will say this: Being black in America, being in black skin is political even if you don’t want it to be. It’s political simply because we exist. Had my subjects been white or Asian, my photographs would have had a different political overtone. Not to say I’d never do it, but staying true to putting forth what I want to represent and believe in for my family, my daughter, and my community is important to me.
I’ve heard that you’ve been shot and wounded by a gun. Has much of your art been informed by this?
Being in Philadelphia, you’re acutely aware of the violence on the streets. There’s a lot of people that are aggressive for no really good reason whatsoever. The impact of being shot in the city, and then staying in the city was big, because the No. 1 thing that everybody wanted me to do was leave. "You should leave, it’s not good here." And I took that opportunity to change that point of view. You can get shot, and you can bounce back, and you can make something of what's left. I was shot in 1998, 28 years old when this happened, and I was robbed, then shot. It was the worst thing you can imagine happening to you. It took a long time for me to get to a place where I could say I still loved this city. But it was all about making the right choices; it was about taking the right steps to love this city again. I don’t usually bring it up to a lot of people, but it’s something that I try to tell people about, how it made me a better person. I became more driven, way more engaging with life; I just wanted to live every day much more fully than I had. It didn’t really impact my art, it more so impacted me. I definitely don’t include political statement about anti-guns in my art, given that I’m a victim of that kind of crime, but I just wanted my life to stand for what happens afterward, and I hope other people can feel that as an inspiration.
Through April 2, African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., 215-574-0380, aamp.org