Frederica Tanco picked up a piece of the wall — a brassized painting of a pterodactyl — hanging in Natalia Gallery in New York. It reminded her of her father, who battled cancer for 25 years, Tanco told her interviewer. The colorful, angular animal stood defiantly in the center of the main gallery, its sharp-edged wings swooping and arching as if it were trying to capture the viewer’s attention. “He looked at this piece every day. He was really into this show,” Tanco said of her father, 92, who worked as a furniture carpenter in the Bronx.
Though the aging artist — whose real name is John Franco — is no longer alive, he had a special place in Tanco’s heart. For the past four years, she has contributed art to Natalia’s monthly art collective and made portraits for the apartment where her young son resides. “That’s very important to me,” Tanco said, explaining that her child was born without any birthmarks or scarring and that, as a result, she sees life as a gift to be enjoyed.
Tanco is part of a gallery in New York with a singular focus: its core consist of artists, and all members of the collective are also black. It was founded in 2017 and is a member of the recently launched Gerhard Richter Center for Contemporary Art in Frankfurt, where it met its president, David Rosenblum, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Tanco recalls what she believes was Richter’s motivation for founding the center, “It was to say, ‘Look, I’m part of a collaborative project, and I’m encouraging these artists to tell their own stories, their personal stories, and if they want to get involved, it doesn’t stop there. They can show their work in other spaces, like the more commercial galleries, but they are going to be going to our space. They are going to be part of this communal project that is going to create a new dialogue around performance art.’” The initiative invites artists to use narrative, sound, and other forms of narration and sensory stimulation in their works in order to raise awareness about racism and racism’s influence on society. Tanco continues to use performance art to convey her fear that someday her son may be transformed into an American citizen, if he is not protected from the persecution he is experiencing now.
“I was at the screening of Langston Hughes’s play, ‘And the Holy Rock,’ which has a very important message: ‘My child is suffering. My child, my child, my child,’” Tanco says. “The movie opens with a very powerful line, ‘They say they want to make America great again. What are they talking about?’” Tanco grew up in the Projects, in Brooklyn, and although she’s deeply moved by the Vietnam War documentary “Hooverland,” which shows what it was like to be a black soldier during the Vietnam War, she does not take comfort in its appeal.
“I think race is just the continuation of colonization,” Tanco explained. “When you can see your homeland removed from you or you are not respected as an equal citizen, there is always going to be trouble. Even if you say, ‘This is the country of freedom,’ you are never going to be free from the ideology of racism that is developed over time.”
Rather than hang on to her resentment, Tanco is responding to it through art — attempting to blur the lines between the contemporary and the ancient. “It doesn’t matter how many records are in the American Library System, I have art that came from Africa,” Tanco said. “It doesn’t matter if you take a photograph or read a book about another country, it is like the concept is the same: that humanity is a global village.”