|elbows with the uppity ups. And I came back here. I’m at that point where I definitely want to do this. I definitely want to be an
artist. I definitely want to be an actor one day. That was definitely a huge door opening for me to be at an opening at the
Whitney. People were there from my school who knew me. There were famous artists from the school who had come back to
give talks who remembered me. I had a good conversation with a famous artist. He offered me a space in a gallery. His wife
did. I couldn’t take it because I was so home sick. It was one of those things where I had to get home right away.”
Throughout his travels through a socioeconomic cross section of America, Wasikhongo has kept a sense of balance and who
he is because of something that his mother taught him.
“My mother wanted me to feel as if I was important,” Wasikhongo said. “She always wanted me to feel like, ‘You shouldn’t
care about how much money someone has. You shouldn’t judge someone on where they are from. And don’t let anyone who
has money ever look down on you. Don’t let anyone just because they are white or just because their parents are somebody
whom you have heard of look down on you. It was always important to me in my mind that I was looked at as an equal or as
good as anyone no matter who they were, rich or poor, black or white, boy or girl, woman or man. That’s what my mother
always instilled in me. No one is more important than you.”
After Wasikhongo came back to Madison, it took him two tries to land an exhibit of his work in Gallery III in the Overture
Center. His exhibit blends body building with art, his two passions. It was as if Wasikhongo was expressing his journey to
“I became such a good body builder,” Wasikhongo said. “I was almost better at body building for awhile than I was at art. That
was my way of pushing through those barriers. I physically turned myself into a body of work. A body builder by the name of
Kai Greene once said, ‘For a body builder, his achievement, his 20 years of work, is the equivalent to a Ph.D. for a scholar.’
That’s something that I carried with me. It’s hard to earn and it’s everything. It’s everything to that person. That’s what I had in
me doing both, body building and art. And so, I paint body builders. I grew up reading muscle and flex magazines, which are
like the Ebony and Jet of body building. I started body building when I was 12-13-years-old. I went to the Mr. Olympia contest
last year. I saw these guys who I used to idolize. They look younger than me now. And they are 50-60-years-old. And it was like
the young kid came out of me who was reading those magazines and trying to figure out his way in life. And I knew at that
point that I did the right thing. I lived my life. I lived my legacy.”
One of the pieces in Wasikhongo’s exhibit features Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his he-man roles. Schwarzenegger is
almost a metaphor for Wasikhongo’s own search for inner strength and being able to confront a sometimes hostile world.
“The first piece is titled ‘The Predator (Arnold Schwarzenegger),’” Wasikhongo said. “In 1987, Predator came out. I had been
watching Arnold Schwarzenegger films since I was really young. At the time, my mother wasn’t married. I lived without a dad.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was like a father figure to me. My step father, Ray Tesfagiorgis, took my brother and I to see Predator.
When I saw the movie and I saw Carl Weathers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Duke and all of these big, strong guys. When I
saw them in the jungle, it felt like they were in Africa. I know they were in South America, but it felt like they were in Africa.
|Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
As we sit on some chairs in the Overture Center’s third floor gallery space, I am
struck by Comfort Wasikhongo’s almost innocence and yet toughness that converge
together into his art, which is now being exhibited at Overture. On his personal
journey, Wasikhongo has been open to the world and in turn impacted by it, seeing
life from so many sides and being connected to so many worlds that he didn’t always
perfectly fit into.
While Wasikhongo was studying at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in
Philadelphia, he was exposed to the New York art world.
“At the end of my fellowship at Temple, I was rewarded by a professor who gave me
an invitation to go to the opening of America Is Hard to See at the Whitney Museum of
Art, which is a very artsy occasion,” Wasikhongo said. “The Whitney has been
around for over 100 years. I got to the opening and saw so many people. It was like
the opening of the Overture Center with everyone in suits. I saw Jessica Sara
Parker and Dakota Fanning. I saw millionaires and billionaires. I went home, back to
the hood, and looked up who these people were on BFA.com. There were artists like
Fred Wilson and Jasper Johns. It was one of those things where I was rubbing
|I looked at the Predator like maybe he was a slave or something trying to
escape from slavery. And these guys were like overseers hunting him.
Things were getting intertwined in my life because I was having these
feelings again and I was stuck at a young age where I couldn’t do anything
to escape the slavery that I was in. I couldn’t get stronger than a man. I was
only a teenager and my abilities weren’t full. It seemed impossible. That
painting right there represents the struggle that began at that age, 12-16-
years-old. It’s a struggle that my family has gone through to stay together, to
keep all of us on the right path, to just achieve. And that achievement was
the main focus of my life. But I never thought in a million years that they
would bring a Gold’s Gym to Madison. So when they did, I definitely went
there. I felt every day that I was going there that I was walking into the
movie Predator, walking through that land, walking into that whole jungle
forest, especially with the trees and everything going into the gym. This
painting came about not only from that, but as a reflection of my own
struggle to be free. Going out there every day, it just freed me. I didn’t have
to worry about the downtown hustle and bustle.”
Another piece that Wasikhongo exhibited is “Kissing Girls and
Bodybuilders.” Kissing Girls is an expression of Wasikhongo’s interactions
with white people in Madison when he was young, both the good and the
bad. First the good.
“Being Black in my school at Shorewood Hills when I was 5-6-years-old, I
was like everyone else,” Wasikhongo said. “We didn’t notice racism. But it
was one of those things where the older kids would pick on the younger
kids. We were the younger kids. And after school on the last day, I was
walking out of the classroom and there was an older kid there, a girl who
was kind of pretty. And I thought that she was going to try and fight me
because she was an older kid. But she wasn’t going to fight me. She was
the total opposite. She was super nice to me. She was like, ‘How are you
doing. What’s your name? I like Michael Jackson and PYT.’ We had a lot in
common. I remembered that thought and it stayed with me through a lot of
racism. She was like my first, real white friend. It stayed with me through a
lot of racism. I’ve seen a lot of things where older guys would tell their
kids, ‘Don’t play with that Black kid.’ It never happened to me, but I would
see it happen to other kids and I wouldn’t like it. And I was like, ‘Man, this
is so against what I know Madison could possibly be about.’ Sometimes I
feel that this experience explained Madison to me and the potential it has.
Madison has this secret, deep down potential for love and equality.”
And then there was the bad.
“This image of the green car and this guy’s face in it, one day after school at
Shorewood Hills, my mother was working real late,” Wasikhongo recalled.
“A stranger approached me. ‘Come here kid. I won’t hurt you.’ It just tripped
me out. I was in fear. It was just totally opposite of what I felt with this
woman. I never told my mom about it until this year when I was doing the
painting. I never wanted my mom to worry about me. It’s one of those things
where I have the body builder here because that is how I looked at my
physical peak when I was 24-years-old. But I was still seeing things that
even if you’re a body builder, they scare you. You can be a little kid at heart.
You can be a scared little child and look like a big strong man. It stuck with
me. It was the other feeling that I had about white people. It was the other
feeling and I’ve had both inside of me my whole life. It’s always been
polarizing. I always have to remind myself of what other races see when
they see Black men. They see both images. They see Obama and then they
see Michael Brown. It’s one of those things where I know the fear and I
know the joy. And I feel that I can relate to other people in that sense.”
It’s been a long and eventful journey for Wasikhongo to this point, a journey
that has shown him the best and the worst that Madison and America have
to offer. It is a journey that has forced him to build an inner strength to
withstand the assaults that may occur to his physical and spiritual self. It’s
been a journey worth taking.