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Tylonn J. Sawyer is an American figurative artist, educator, and curator living and working in Detroit. He is an activist, rooted in his community and invested in Detroit’s young people.

His work explores identity, contemplative but deliberate, making his mark, “Ty was Here.” He questions what constitutes identity and then re-constitutes it, a different order, parsing apart politics, race, history, and pop culture in the ongoing conundrum.

The self-made protagonists in his deft drawings, paintings, and murals shape-shift across continents, time, generations, using masks of his ancestors and mentors like Malcolm X and Barack Obama (DNA, 2019) in overlay, mapping his own journey towards self-determination with their guidance. Often shown in multiple, Sawyer’s suited figures splice, as if a metaphor for double and triple consciousness.  

For WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL.1, Sawyer takes on the visual vernacular often associated with power and oppression in Western art. The larger-than-life statuary figures in his jumbo size drawings (Strata Drawings I and II, 2019) accentuate the puffed up Euro-centric masculinity pervasive in classical sculpture and later post-Civil War Confederate monuments, bringing both into question. 

In a triumphant turn, his series of drawings entitled “Grace Noir” honors Black women artists like Kara Walker, Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weams, and Detroit artist Tiff Massey, memorializing them instead for their invaluable contributions to shaping the landscape of visual culture.

New “anthem” paintings like Three Graces: Aretha, 2019 change our historical visual landscape like powerful dynamite, blasting the male gaze from the mountain side once and for all with a trio of “Queen Arethas.” 

Like other prominent artists of his generation, rather than waiting for racist inspired monuments to come down, Sawyer creates his own memorials with new narratives, upending racist ideology in the process.    

Sawyer consistently returns to his own authentic story, one that is always searching for truth amidst half-truths, well aware that the only way to right history is to rewrite it, a mending of threads broken and left unbroken among us, a making of amends.

As part of his residency, Sawyer also worked with undergraduate students to create a mural (on the first floor of the Modern Languages Building) honoring Samuel C. Watson, the first African American student admitted to the University of Michigan. Consistent with his other work, the mural explores identity, and changes our own visual landscape at the University. 

-Amanada Krugliak, curator, Institute for the Humanities