In society, people of color are often not in control of their own image. Through his paintings, artist Markeith Woods is working to take back control.
“I want the viewer to walk away with a certain level of empowerment and new understanding about the figures and subjects they are looking at,” he said.
Woods is from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and is currently pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Arkansas. He received his Bachelor in Visual Arts from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2014.
He is one of the 41 artists-in-residence at the Chautauqua Visual Arts School of Art this summer. The residency program gives artists the opportunity to immerse themselves in artistic programming.
“Being here feels exciting and fresh,” he said. “I am being exposed to all these different artists in one experience. This is one of the first times I’ve been situated around so many different creative individuals.”
Woods specializes in painting, and works with the medium as a visual language. He uses materials such as charcoal, graphite, acrylic and oil pastels.
His work highlights wealth disparities and racial inequalities. In his current series, “Still Segregated,” he paints images of his Black and brown subjects sitting outside of their apartments, as many people of color have historically been excluded from systems of wealth, often forcing them to forego home ownership and rent instead.
“With this series, I was thinking about wealth gaps and how hard it really is for us — people where I’m from — to own a home,” he said. “I started going out into my community and asking people if they wanted to participate in this project. All they have to do is sit outside of their apartment.”
One of Woods’ paintings, “Kicked Out Again,” was recently on display in the exhibition “Connections I: CVA School of Art Residents Exhibitions” in the Fowler-Kellogg Arts Center. In his work, his subjects subvert the viewer’s gaze. The subjects look away from the viewer, pensively into the distance, never making direct eye contact.
Woods said that he believes the gaze is a powerful artistic statement because people of color are often not in control of how they are perceived by society, and yet, they are the ones who are held responsible for perceptions of them. He described Black people as always having to be in the psychological state of “survival mode” due to systems of oppression and inequality — racism, health disparities and unemployment — and that survival mode inhibits Black individuals’ agency and freedom.
But in his paintings, the subject is finally at rest. By not submitting to the viewer’s gaze, the subject is taking back power and control over how they are viewed.
“We often come to images, or situations, with these already made-up myths and perceptions of how this person made the wrong decision and judging a situation without having all the facts,” he said. “In my work, part of taking the ownership and power back, and putting it in the hands of the subject, is that they are not looking directly at the viewer.”
Woods offers the viewer a different perspective of Blackness, creating positive representations for Black and brown communities.
“Perception is everything,” he said. “I work to tell a correct view of the subjects from my lens, as I have experienced judgements from an incorrect perspective.”
In addition to his studio practice, Woods works as an art educator. He worked as an assistant art educator at the Arts & Science Center in Pine Bluff, where he gave tours and organized classes. He also served as an elementary school teacher for two years. He said that he didn’t take his first art class until seventh grade, so he appreciates being able to foster an appreciation for art among younger generations.
“Being exposed to it, it’s definitely going to shape their minds,” he said. “They’re always going to have some level of appreciation for art. I’m always thinking about how I can inspire and cultivate experiences for the next upcoming generation of art professionals.”
Woods said that he enjoys being surrounded by other artists at Chautauqua.
“You can really be inspired and motivated by the environment and imagery that’s circulating a room,” he said. “It’s all about being able to learn from every space that you walk through. Whether it’s a college space or an academic space, you can find yourself growing from each experience.”