Derrick Alexis Coard
I Am that I Am
Opening reception: Wednesday, June 26, 6–8 pm

June 26–August 23, 2024
172 East 2nd Street
New York

Salon 94
June 26–August 16, 2024
3 East 89th Street
New York

In collaboration with Salon 94, Karma presents I Am that I Am, an exhibition of works on paper by Derrick Alexis Coard open from June 26 to August 23, 2024, at 172 East 2nd Street.

I Am that I Am is a survey exhibition of over 30 works by the Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Alexis Coard. While living with schizoaffective disorder, art making was Coard’s healing and spiritual outlet, in which he created a poignant, signature body of work comprised of sensitively rendered portraits of Black men with beards. He found solace and a divine purpose in Christian spirituality, including Biblical tenets surrounding the symbolic wisdom and reverence of beards. Coard once stated, “I use bearded Black men as symbolic expression for possible change for the African-American male community… that we as a Black male people can be victorious, achieving needed healing and unity.”

I first met Derrick Alexis Coard (1981-2017) in 2013 in the Long Island City studio of  Healing Arts Initiative (H.A.I.), a storied New York non-profit organization founded in 1969, that  sought to inspire “healing, growth and learning through access to the arts for the culturally  underserved.” Derrick had started working in H.A.I.’s art studio program in 2008, and would  continue to be an active member of the H.A.I. community until 2016 (when the organization  abruptly closed.) When I met Derrick he was working simultaneously on a number of his portraits of what he described as “bearded black men.” He had a small stack of the drawings with  him, each in a different stage of resolution: some were almost fully realized, whereas others were  still outlines or sketches, awaiting further work towards completion. Talking with Derrick I  discovered that he had started to draw seriously as a child, and that as a teenager he had attended  Saturday art classes at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology; summer school at The  Brooklyn Museum; and night classes at the Jamaica Art Center. During his adolescence in the  1990s Coard began to create his now-iconic images of bearded black men. These works are not  self-portraits, nor are they portraits of specific individuals, rather they are composites of different  people that Derrick had observed or encountered in his community and on his travels throughout New York City. In his resulting drawings these figures become almost ‘characters’, and the city  their ‘stage’. In a statement that Derrick wrote to accompany his 2014 debut solo exhibition at White Columns he described his work as “a form of testimonial where black men can be seen in  a more positive and righteous light.” Derrick’s exhibition at White Columns took the form of a  focused survey of his work made between 2000 and 2014 (the earliest works in the exhibition  having being made whilst he was still in his teens.) Coard’s complex works both explore and  amplify equally complex questions of identity, masculinity, desire, and faith. (The critic Michael  Wilson observed in his Artforum review of the White Columns exhibition that “Coard’s use of  the word righteous reveals his spiritual leanings.”) These unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable,  tensions are at the heart of Coard’s profound – and profoundly personal – project. Derrick died  unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of thirty-six, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work that  continues to resonate widely. He is greatly missed by his family, friends and community.  

– Matthew Higgs

A great deal has already been written about why Derrick Alexis Coard’s art is so moving. About its poetry as well as its deep sensuality, and hence its humanity. If there is now a cornucopia of remarks on Coard in connection with this exhibition, I would like to take the opportunity to relate his tender drawings more strongly to the hard-hitting context on which they may have been created. For as personal as this artistic cosmos may be, it works against the Mandingo trope, which has been rampant since the time of slavery and is still prevalent in the media, particularly in porn. Needless to say that such films replace actual histories with phantasmic images of inherent black male sexual aggression towards white women. The very real consequences of such media distortions are felt by black men every day anew. 

In his drawings, Coard counters this disgusting yet extremely powerful trope with a tender, spiritual sexuality in which the bodies of black men are freed from incriminating and otherizing attributions. In part, because they are related to nothing other than themselves. The occasional halo or angel’s wings wouldn’t even be necessary, the soft eyes and beard are enough to undermine any contaminated iconology. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Mandingo effect forms the grim background against which the porosity of black masculinity, as outlined by Derrick Alexis Coard, rises up. All the touching poetry of these drawings, their sensuality and humanity, derives at least in part from his radical inversion of this aggressive racist trope. This reading may be obvious, but important to mention, as artists with mental health disorders are often accessed through an “otherworldliness” or personal mythology, which can lead to bypassing key aspects of an artist’s work. The poignancy of Coard’s works is heightened if we all see the compassion, tenderness and pureness in them not as retreat, but as the pursuit of a better reality.  

– Mortiz Scheper  

Derrick Alexis Coard, I Am that I Am is organized in collaboration with Marc Jancou Contemporary and Salon 94. Special thanks to Matthew Higgs and the White Columns team for their incredible support, and to all the lenders who made this exhibition possible.