Yashua Klos’ first museum solo exhibition, ‘Our Labour’, at the Wellin Museum of Art in Clinton, NY, is a very meaningful debut. Throughout the show, the themes of family and labor are intertwined with the historical circumstance of the Great Migration and the coincidence of a DNA test that revealed his blood relatives whom the artist barely knew.
Klos, 44, born to a white mother and black father and raised by the mother in Chicago, now has his studio in the Bronx. He works mainly in the medium of prints, which make up most of the pieces in “Our Labour”. But the show also includes his hybrid maple wood sculptures that incorporate ritual masks that represent Klos’s African descent, and welding helmets, which are the equipment of automobile manufacturing—the profession that lured his own family from Memphis to Detroit in the 1960s.
I have been acquainted with Klos’ oeuvre for a long time after seeing his solo exhibition at Tilton Gallery in 2015 and subsequent group exhibitions at International Print Center New York and BRIC. His work consists of distinctive collages of prints and graphite on paper with mostly human faces or hands mixed with feathers, rock formations or pieces of wood and brick, as if he sees people as being fundamentally constructed from these everyday materials.
The show’s curator (and director of the Wellin) Tracy Adler, who has known the artist since her days as a curator at Hunter College Art Galleries, says Klos has always been a standout for me.” She continues: “Printing can often feel historic and very pristine, but his sense was improvised and open-ended. He throws away the rulebook when it comes to printmaking.”
Recently, I spoke to the artist via Zoom about the work featured in the show as well as how it helped him connect with his family and loved ones. This exhibition will travel to his gallery, Sikkema Jenkins, in Manhattan in October. These are excerpts from our conversation.
So your show at the Wellin Museum is titled “Our Labour”. Who is the implied “we” in that title?
I love that titles have a double meaning. If I’m lucky I can find one with a triple meaning. “Our Labor”† is primarily a reference to my family and the work my family has done in the Detroit auto plants. It’s a throwback to a larger history of black labor in America. But it is also a larger historical context of the black ‘our’, which is excluded from visual representation[in this nation’s history]†
And then I think – back to the personal – this is a new family for me. I mean, they’ve been there all along, but I’m getting back in touch with them, learning about all the work they’ve done to stay together. It’s a big family. I recently learned that my father was one of 15 children, and they all had many children.
And think about the migration efforts of black people who move from the South to the Midwest, support a family, raise each other’s children, work and have these jobs. I think about all that work, and all the work it took for me and them to include each other in our lives as well.
Finally, my work is explicitly about Processthat’s why I left those unprocessed MDF blocks of wood next to the artworks [used to make some of the prints]because I like to show some of that work in my own practice, the hand in the work.
You discovered this family later in life. One of the things this show brings to the surface is what family actually is?
When I was raised by my mother I learned that your family are the people you survive with, the people you support and support you, and my mother’s best friends were my aunts, and their children were my cousins .
There was a time when you had a first connection through your father, I think when you were 7?
That’s right. I knew they were there all the time. I just had no way of getting in touch with them. I grew up without my father. I’ve met him twice in my life, and when I was seven he took me on a road trip to Detroit where I met the rest of the family, but when I was seven it all felt like a dream. I wasn’t sure how much of it was real, and of course, as kids, we make up our own stories to protect ourselves. So I blocked that was even a possibility of ever getting back in touch.
Than [in February 2019] I did this DNA test, not with the intention of interacting with them, but to discover the African countries I am associated with. And a year later I got a Facebook message from Detroit.
What was the nature of the message?
“Hey, we did a DNA test here. It seems that you are a close relative. In fact, you look like some cousins here in Detroit.” They said, “Do you know anything about McDonalds or the Masseys from Detroit? And I said, ‘Eureka. My father is Leon [McDonald]you know?” And they said, “Well, then we’re cousins.”
She left a phone number, and my head exploded first, and once I got the pieces together, I paced back and forth, and I thought, what’s going on here? Is this legit? Suddenly it seemed so available.
So I jumped on FaceTime. My cousin Paige was on the other end of the line, “Hey, this is my mom, your aunt. Look, that’s your Uncle George who just came in. That’s you…” It was like people just coming in. In my mind I had written them off as similar to the stories I heard about my father. But it turns out that they are the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s like winning the lottery.
So let’s talk a little bit about what’s on the show. You have a mural that is kind of a family tree, “Our Labour” (2020-2021). What inspired the composition?
The composition is inspired by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Mural, created in 1933, on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Art. The second time I went to visit my family I saw this mural and was just blown away by how big it was. Months later I said, That mural could be the composition for my family tree, as I was struggling to understand my relationship with all these people.
As a visual learner, I have to see these faces and memorize their relationships. So the mural is divided using some of the key components of Diego’s factory background mural, featuring grandma [his father’s mother] in the middle, dropping the bike, and then her first four Massey guys on the left, the 10 McDonalds in the middle, and then she had one last one, Paul Green, all the way to the right. Then, on the factory floor, where Rivera placed workers, I posted cousins, cousins, and then, of course, a sneaky self-portrait.
Can you tell us a bit about what else is featured in the show and how they relate to the central theme?
There is an image “Vine Vine” (2021) with the hand that takes a moment to hold and admire [Michigan] wildflowers – we talked about labor and being forced to fulfill this representative need of black people in this historic space [of fine art portraiture]† I don’t want to constantly replicate images of black people at work – the assumptions of the black body as a body for work. So that hand doesn’t work, it takes a break.
So it is a moment of relaxation. It is a moment of appreciation for beauty that is actually available to that black person?
Absolute. I think of all these residential areas with abandoned properties, weeds and wildflowers growing over things and reclaiming them, and think of those as symbols of reclamation, not just a reclamation of nature after capitalism has collapsed, but a sort of reclamation of blackness.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about “Our Labor?†
I started this during Covid, I’m sure many of us needed connectivity in a new way during Covid, and I’m pretty sure my reconnection with family really helped me through that. The project became a way to bridge that space between us, became a way to communicate, to build a relationship, to need each other. You know, we needed each other to make this happen.
Through June 12, Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY; (315) 859-4396; hamilton.edu/wellin.