Anthony Peyton Young’s Works: A Result of Social Media, Black Lives Matter, and Personal Experiences

Anthony Peyton Young’s Works: A Result of Social Media, Black Lives Matter, and Personal Experiences

by Tyrus Townsend

Imagine knowing and understanding that your mere existence and your ancestral imprints are both a blessing and a curse – a service of inspiration for the uninspired; a voice for the countless voiceless; and oftentimes, a tribute to lifeless Black bodies across the world. This alludes to the identity that has always been at the center of Anthony Peyton Young’s artistic universe. A world that includes stints in Boston and Charleston, West Virginia, where a young Black creative is able to utilize collected imagery such as photography and memorabilia, along with ordinary materials and fabrications, to evoke raw emotion and bring attention to injustices from yesterday to right now.

His award winning works infuses realism through a bevy of drawings, collages and paintings in the name of Black Southern Americana. He presents vivid and intentional portraits of those lost, as a result of systemic racism, through a series of haunting messaging and hidden discoveries. Think Toni Morrison’s Beloved, James Baldwin’s Another Country.

A student of recollection and homage, Young sat down with us to discuss complexities, ancestry, processes, identity of the past, present and future, his collaboration with Good Black Art and much more.

Tyrus Rochell Townsend: Your work explores so many things: race, identity, memorialization, queerness and the list goes on. You also frequently explore the topic of ancestry. For today’s conversation, I’d like to focus on this recurring theme. To start with, how do you define the word “ancestry” and why is ancestry an important pillar in your creative practice?

Anthony Peyton Young: I would define ancestry as one’s family lineage and also the histories connected to your bloodlines as well. Coming from a very close knit family, that’s also pretty large too, I’ve always been inspired by them and they’ve always given me a strong sense of Black pride. A lot of the work that I make tends to stem from experiences, stories, and traditions that I’ve had growing up. As I’ve gotten older, the idea of ancestry has become broader in my artwork, thinking of the different Black stories & folklore, traditions (cooking, hair styling & crafts), as well as humor and how it connects to various other black lineages.

TRT: Tell us about your ancestry and lineage. How do your family’s experiences manifest in your work? 

APY: I’m from Charleston, WV and I was born and raised mostly by my maternal family, which was pretty big, came in every shade of Black, and very close to one another. My family has a lot of funny personal stories and sayings, myths that connect to superstition, and many experiences we’ve shared together, and in my artwork all of those experiences, stories, and moments really form a lot of the works I’ve made. 

TRT: You’re from West Virginia, lived in Boston and spent time in many cities and countries over the past few years - most recently Mexico. Being away from home sometimes sheds light on who we are and the experiences that shape us. In your time away from West Virginia, what's the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself being a queer Black man from the rural South? 

APY: One of the most important things I’ve learned being away from WV is to be confident in knowing who I am and that I can achieve anything if I truly believe it. I feel like many people have tried to tell who I am or what I’m capable of doing or achieving, but those types of people are usually the ones who know the least about me. Knowing and believing in yourself is truly the most powerful thing you can ever achieve. 

Say Their Names Vll, 2020 and Say Their Names IV, 2020, photography by Arturo Sanchez 

TRT: Switching gears back to your practice. Your process and mediums have been evolving over the past couple of years. In your recent collaboration with Good Black Art, you presented a ceramic jug entitled My Brother, The Tough Guy. Can you share why you created this piece and did this specific medium bring your story to life?

APY: I created this piece during the Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson residency. It’s actually inspired by a friend of mine, who’s like my brother, that I met in Boston but is from Mexico. The jug was inspired by a time when he and I both shaved our heads bald. My friend faced a lot of racist remarks when he cut off his long silky hair, mostly because his haircut drew more attention to his indigenous features and some of his colleagues felt he looked like a thug. In this jug, I wanted to create a piece that reflected his pride in his indigenous features, as well as his confidence and resilience. I chose to use ceramics for this piece because of my friend being from Mexico and during my trip there he connected me to a few of his friends that allowed me to create a few ceramic pieces in their studio since México has a deep history and connection to ceramics. The title is influenced by how he keeps a tough guy exterior and won’t back down to anyone who disrespects him. 

My Brother, The Tough Guy, 2023, L (front) and R (back) photography by Arturo Sanchez

TRT: Do you think there is one medium that best represents your themes and narrative?

APY: I wouldn’t say there is only one medium, but one that I often tend to use in my work is bleach. I feel that bleaching definitely reflects the erasure that Black and other minority groups constantly face, especially when it comes to our history, our stories, and legacy. Normally when I’m working on an idea, I try to stay open minded to how different materials or mediums can have a meaningful impact on the piece. 

TRT: Despite the medium, how do you intend for your work to be viewed by the public?

APY: I hope that the public takes the moment to appreciate the history, information, experiences that my artwork offers. While I have a few different series of works, all of the works relate to each other, and I hope that the viewers can connect to my artwork; if not through cultural similarities then through similar experiences.

To Devour Your Worries, 2023, L (front) and R (back) photography by Arturo Sanchez

TRT:  You have an upcoming exhibition at Simmon’s University. One of the pieces that will be shown is Say His Name: George Floyd (May 25, 2020). Many Black and brown people in America have been lost to police brutality, hate and racial profiling. If you can think back to the initial start of this piece, how did you associate or relate your life to this story? 

APY: I first started the piece of George Floyd during the Protest in May 2020 and finished the painting in the beginning 2023. Created from various portraits of George, black paint is thickly applied to parts of the portrait, symbolizing both black pride, and the roughness that is associated with the stereotype of black men. While the alternative pieces depict a more realistic portrayal of George Floyd, I can relate to George’s story through the experience of being a black man living his life with a constant feeling of being threatened by public defenders as well as others who deem my existence as being less than worthy.

Say His Name: George Floyd May 25, 2020, 2023, photography provided by Simmon University

TRT: While our history as a people is at times hard, it’s also beautiful. With your work touching on some tough topics, what can we take away from it to make us better? How do you use your work to give hope and inspiration? 

APY: In my work when creating pieces in materials like bleach and gunpowder, I often try to express a strong resilience in the figures portrayed.  A resilience against the people and institutions that try to silence or erase out their narratives. I hope that my work will leave people with the strength to push forward regardless of what they’re up against, and that your future can become whatever you wish to make it.

TRT: Despite the challenges we face, we live in a time when Black and Brown people are excelling and creating their own "tables" and platforms. You, for one, are doing that by making incredible work, telling stories that need to be heard and doing it on your own terms. As our ancestors look down on you and your work, what do you think they are saying?

APY: I think my family in the ancestral plane (my dad and my grandmothers) are extremely proud of me and what I’ve achieved. I would imagine they’d say “never stop, never settle, and don’t forget to help uplift others in the same ways it’s been done for you.” I often think about the light my family has created for me to become the person I am today, and I try to continue that legacy of being a light for others both in person as well as through my artwork.