Ties to Antiquity: An Interview with Darryl Babatunde Smith

Artalk Artist Feature Contemporary Art Interview

Recently, I had the opportunity for an in-depth discussion with, now, New York-based artist Darryl Babatunde Smith. We spoke about antiquity, the contemporary art scene, drawing practices, and his work. It is with great pleasure to bring you the fruits of our conversation in the interview below.

Portrait of the artist in his studio in Ridgewood, NY.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Born in Georgetown, D.C. in 1992, Darryl Babatunde Smith started making art as a way of interpreting foreign languages as opposed to translating them in English. He studied French, German, and Latin in high school and later began to learn Ancient and Modern Greek on his own. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he completed his BFA in Painting, and at the New York Academy of Art where he obtained his MFA in Drawing and Anatomy. Through Darryl’s knowledge of Latin and Greek, he immerses himself in antiquity. He uses Greco-Roman symbols and traditional Renaissance techniques such as silverpoint drawing and egg tempera painting to connect personal narratives with Greco-Roman ideologies and philosophies.

Follow our conversation below.

TA: What drew you to forms of Greek antiquity?

DBS: When I took AP Latin in high school in 2009, I immediately became infatuated with mythology and ancient languages. At the same time, I was also in AP Art History and the bulk of the class focused on Renaissance art, which I loved, too, but noticed that though there were some mythological themes present in paintings, it didn’t quite “feel” the same way as when I read the story in Latin. I later found out that most of the stories I was reading in the Aeneid were of Greek origin. I love knowing the origin of things, so I, of course, had to research more on the Greek versions of the myths, and also the art because I figured it would have been made relatively contemporary to the writing anyway. The first work I read was “The Bacchae” by Euripides, and I saw a vase painting of the same narrative and was instantly blown away by how the artwork matched the exact amount of intensity and gore as the original text. Still riding that wave 12 years later!

TA: Yes, I know exactly what you mean about that internal need to learn a language to read the original text! There is just so much more richness and immediacy to the experience. Speaking of the intensity of artwork, a noticeable aspect of your work is how you render the human form in a soft grayscale. This is reminiscent of the ancient white marble sculptures that are stripped of their ancient coloring. To me personally, this reads almost as though the form depicted is pared down to its essence as though seeking to approach that immaterial aspect of being a human as described by the ancients.
Can you speak more to this aspect of your work?

DBS: There is a type of sensitivity and care that the sculptors had when they rendered figures in marble and seeing that in museums really captivated me. I knew I wasn’t necessarily a sculptor, as drawing is my first love, but I wanted to somehow have that same sensitivity in what I made. In undergrad, I was introduced to silverpoint drawing, and that subtle way of drawing just clicked for me! The way the white of the marble glistens affected the surfaces onto which I draw. If it’s on paper, I like the surface to be as smooth and clean as possible, and if on panel, I sand it to this eggshell finish that you often see on marble sculptures.

TA: This is fascinating! You have really expressed, here, the true ancient Greek blurring of the boundaries between mediums. Sculpture was seen as an expression and communication art form as much as drawing and painting. It was a three-dimensional zographike (ζωγραφική). Your drawings truly exude a sculptural quality, and please do say more.

DBS: Another aspect of the sculptures that continues to influence my work is how they pair humanity down to its bare essentials and nothing else. I would always ask myself, “How amazing is it that these sculptors were able to tell the entire backstory of a deity or person just by this single-figure composition?” In reading Ancient Greek literature I started to dive more into the stories and saw that there are very timeless themes that come up again and again. So in my work, I try to perform this same task of pairing down narratives that exemplify this human aspect in us all.

Conspectus lateralis bracchii dextri (Lateral view of the right arm), 24-carat goldpoint and silverpoint on mineral paper, 9×12 in., 2019.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: Your work also demonstrates an interest in the human body; anatomically speaking. Can you elaborate?

DBS: I knew early on when I started to make art that I wanted to focus on the figure, and I started to think about figurative art as literature since during this time I was first introduced to ancient literature via the Aeneid in my AP Latin class in high school. I took this art-as-literature analogy quite literally. If I wanted to write or tell a compelling story, I needed to understand the grammar of the language in which I planned on writing. Namely, with figurative art, the grammar I needed to learn was anatomy. The body is such a fascinating tool for communication and I feel this was 100% known in antiquity.

TA: Absolutely! This circles back to what we were discussing a bit earlier about the term zographizo which generally encompassed figurative art and eventually came to be distilled to referring to drawing and painting. Zographizo is rooted in the words ζω and γράφω which mean to live and write/communicate, respectively. Figurative arts were communicators of life. And what is life but an amalgam of personality, experiences, emotions, and time?

The Anatomist Today, photo for National Geographic ©Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti

TA: I am fascinated by your mention of learning anatomy. This sounds like a very literal approach to getting to know one’s being better. It is something Da Vinci was also known to practice. Do you produce many studies from these anatomy classes?

DBS: Oh yes I did, indeed. In undergrad, I had taken an extracurricular class where we went to Hahnemann hospital to draw cadavers, and then in grad school, I took a proper class where we drew cadavers at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. I later was a Teacher’s Assistant for that same class. Needless to say I really really found it important to study anatomy from the literal source. It changed how I saw and understood both myself and any corporeal form I decided to render.

Με το μπλε προσωπείο [With the Blue Mask], 24-carat goldpoint, Silverpoint, Egg tempera,
on traditionally prepared fiberboard, 8×8 in., 2020.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: What leads you to add color where you do while leaving the remaining body depicted ethereally in some of your works?

DBS: I originally started making the work without wanting to add color, but the work, in the end, called for it. When I paint areas that are not the face, they are inspired by Roman murals and mosaics, whereas when I paint the face, it is inspired by Ancient Greek vase painting. The face for me is a very interesting place. There are two instances that lead me to add color to the face. In “The Bacchae” by Euripides, there is a line where Agave is holding the head of her son and she screams, “I, wretched, hold the head of Pentheus” (οὔκ, ἀλλὰ Πενθέως ἡ τάλαιν’ ἔχω κάρα). The word, however, for “head” is the word κάρα, which I did not know at the time. I looked up the word and saw that it could be used as a paraphrase for “person,” especially in tragedies. This is a note I took in hopes to bring that metonymic aspect into my work. The painted face also denotes a mask because I love Dionysian imagery and can’t help but include a little piece of that into everything. I was mainly inspired by sculptural representations of Melpomene, where her entire essence is highlighted by the expressive mask rather than her actual face. Color, in this way, functions as accents or areas I’d like to highlight.

TA: This reminds me also of ancient theater. The actors were known to wear masks while enacting plays. While this was also a response to the practical issues arising from an all-male cast, it also drew emphasis to the internal state of the character that was fixated vividly upon their face. Do you feel that this aspect of your work might bear references to ancient theater as well?

DBS: Most definitely! I think the notion that the male actors had to use their entire body to portray the mindset of a particular character is what drew me to representing masked figures in my work. It originally started with my graphite drawing of Melpomene and Thalia, the Muses of tragedy and comedy–I see them as my guardian angels. In this drawing, I wanted to discuss how the two Muses were always sculpted with really stoic and expressionless faces while they held masks that essentially dictated their entire persona. I, then, wanted to challenge this representation by drawing the faces but with the masks glued onto their bone structure so that the Muses literally became one with the emotion the masked portrayed. The aspect of theater played a more important role after I saw two Euripides plays at Epidaurus (a magical experience). Often the same actor or actress would play different characters throughout the production and that for me was inspiring. I took this actor-mask relationship as an opportunity to ask myself who are the characters whose mask would fit my face both in bone structure and in personality.

σπαραγμός (ἤ Εἰς τὸν Πενθέα) [Mangling (or To Pentheus)], 24-carat goldpoint, Silverpoint, Egg tempera,
on traditionally prepared panel, 14×18 in., 2019.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith
Red-figure cup showing the Death of Pentheus (exterior), c. 480 B.C. Douris (painter), Terracotta Ceramic, Late Archaic Period. Source.

TA: Re-placing the face on your drawings also seems like experimentation in becoming one with your object of interest or a way to immerse yourself into it more. Can you speak more about the process of creating these hybrid forms?

DBS: I love that you call these hybrid forms! They essentially started out very much as a hybrid of my body and a pose of a mortal represented in red-figure vase paintings. When police brutality really started to take to the news I kept thinking of Pentheus and how he suffered a brutal death, which is also embedded in his name. Being torn apart by bare hands seems like a very extreme, far-fetched, and unnecessary way of dying, but so does being murdered by police, so I made the connection by quite literally turning myself into Pentheus, referencing the pose from a red-figure vase painting. And yes, the organs are drawn from life, which was important for me because these violent acts are real and in our face. Because I feel the Ancient Greeks talked about very—at least in my eyes—universal human experiences, it wasn’t really that difficult for me to immerse myself in the literature.

TA: Yes, absolutely!

DBS: The colors in vase paintings are appealing to me because I enjoy limited palette paintings in general, and with that being said, there are so many types of vases to reference. So far I’ve represented myself as a red-figure vase, a black-figure vase, an eye-cup kylix (next up are Kalos-inscription vases and white-ground lekythoi). I’ve recently started to think of myself in these vases as different “characters” or different aspects of myself since oftentimes I connect with these themes because they are similar to personal narratives and experiences. The red face symbolizes, for example, violence, death, or any negative theme, while the black symbolizes mental power and strength, happiness, and self-love.

Ἀμέθυστος [Amethyst], 24-carat goldpoint, Egg tempera, on traditionally prepared panel, 5×3 in., 2019.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith
Chalkidian black-figure eye-cup, ca.530 BC, Collection of, Munich: Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Source.

TA: This is all so interesting, thank you for elaborating.

In antiquity and Late Antiquity Sculpture, as we noted, was a form of communication. Particular forms and stances meant to communicate historical or mythological events and, at times, even character traits. Some of these are even recognizable today. A popular example is the image of Athena that can be recognized even from sparse remains. Is this something you weave into your work as well?

DBS: Absolutely! Through studying anatomy I started to pick up on the use of the body as communication and that quickly became another grammatical tool in my toolbox for when I compose the figure in my drawing. For a time, before I got caught up in self-portraiture, I loved to do fragments. I likened it to concentrated juice because though there is only a little bit of the sculpture available, the “flavor” was still just as potent and omnipresent in every single limb whether it be a finger, a foot, a torso, or a half of a face. In my self-portraiture, I try to stay as true to the reference pose as possible because that is what keeps that communicative aspect of the body alive.

From the New Acropolis Museum, Athens, GR. Label reads: “Lower part of a statue group of Athena and a Giant. Pentelic marble. Found in Lavrion. The goddess was shown moving to [the] right and attacking the kneeling Giant, possibly Engelados. Work of the 1st century AD., copying a prototype of the second quarter of the 5th century BC.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
ὁ Δοκιμάζων [The Taste Tester], 24-carat goldpoint, Silverpoint, Egg tempera, on traditionally prepared fiberboard, 10×9 in., 2020.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: So, you mentioned earlier that you study and research ancient texts, ideas, and philosophies extensively—a practice that informs your work. Would you like to describe this part of your artistic process in a bit more detail? It is something I deeply appreciate about your practice.

DBS: I think for me, the research aspect of my work tends to be the most fascinating and obsessive part of the work, though my drawing style is also a bit obsessive. It primarily starts with being super infatuated by an artifact in a museum then sitting down and questioning what about the artifact stood out to me and why. Since my work deals with a lot of Dionysian imagery, I like to have a couple of books at the ready as I start to dive into the “why” aspect of the work. Some of these books include “The Bacchae” by Euripides, “Dionysiaka” by Nonnus, “The Anacreontea”, and Homeric hymns. I tend to read through these texts not necessarily for the main storyline, but for the meta-narrative, which I find more compelling. For example, the symbolic notion of wine. I cross-reference the literature, too, in order to see if the subject is talked about in a similar way by different authors. I also try to answer questions about one text with the text of another author to keep things in the realm or mindset of the Ancient Greeks and to prevent my contemporary interpretation on the matter as much as I can.

Anakreon describes that wine is the substance that rids man of sorrow and worry. After reading this I started to ask myself a series of questions: “What were these sorrows?” “Are these sorrows and worries under our control or outside of our control?” “How should one remove sorrows from their life?” “How was wine consumed, and in what quantity?” “Did viticulture play an equal role as oinoposia?” The contemporary point of view, however, does trickle into how I word some of these questions as I investigate: “What is the path to having a less stressful and anxiety-driven life?”

After this series of questions, I look back to ancient texts and juxtapose them with visual art from antiquity (mostly Greek, sometimes Roman) to find a correlation and ultimately an answer. With this quote by Anakreon, I became interested in this “healing” quality of wine that seems to be described in literature. Perhaps wine is a sort of ambrosia for mortals. One of the vase paintings I saw showed a group of Satyrs and women in a vineyard picking grapes off the vine and essentially depicted the entire process of producing wine. In the end, I started to incorporate the grapes in the drawing as a way to allude to the aspect of freedom that has been the common meta-narrative around wine.

TA: I really love this layering that occurs in your work. The ties with literature are so strongly interwoven, it is as though they have become one.

You—very impressively—speak and read numerous languages. What is the role of language in your work? Do you ever feel as though a word can urge you to the creation of a particular form?

DBS: Languages have been an important part of my life far before I started to make art, like since I was a child. I was known in high school as “the language guy” and that name stuck with me forever. When I started to make art, the languages were still there and I wanted to find a way to still use them actively. For me, I use them actively by writing, even when I’m not totally correct because it’s a constant learning process.Visual art, just like language, is a form of communication, so I never really made a separation between the two. I also feel that language helps me see my world from a myriad of points of view. In language learning, you often learn a new word, and then start to see and hear it everywhere. Or sometimes another language has a word that is untranslatable in your mother tongue. And also immersing oneself in a language can teach you new ways of thinking.

From the artist’s notebook.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: I like that idea—that a language can teach you a new way of thinking. I always thought it was the primary way to really immerse yourself in another culture and lifestyle, or as the Greeks call it νοοτροπία [nóotropia]. It allows you to skip some of the pitfalls of translation.

DBS: This primarily happens in what I call “language association,” because I don’t really enjoy translating. Through immersion, I start to think in said language, and at times, certain concepts come to me first in another language, or certain experiences are codified first in my head in a different language. I use this language association a lot in my work. You described my process, actually, in your question! I usually start from an experience, and then from there, it’s a word in Ancient Greek or Latin. Actually, in my sketchbook, instead of pages of sketches of bodies and figures, I mostly list words that will eventually manifest into a visual format, though in the end, I do see my work as poetry.

Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: When we first met, you mentioned that everything about your work is manual and very meticulous. Your approach to pre-modern art also seeps into your choice of medium. You said you even make your own paint as a way to really experience the time constraints of the past artists. I would love it if we could delve deeper into this.

DBS: Yes! While my art, in terms of themes, deals with antiquity, the style in which I work comes from a couple of later periods of art, primarily the Renaissance—rightly so since I already love the philosophy of Ancient Greece. I was super interested in the materiality of the work and I sought after learning the exact materials. I also really enjoy French academic art because my art education has a legacy from the French academic tradition. I enjoy it though ONLY for the polished quality of their drawings. It felt ethereal and sensitive and that matched my personal sentiment whenever I held a drawing tool.

My works are mainly done in metalpoint and egg tempera. I make my metalpoint ground from scratch and mix my egg tempera from scratch as well, and all of these processes are 100% a part of the work. It is a very meticulous process that really grounds me and helps me create a soul within the artwork. And I say “soul” because for me, the work is very much alive, and the materials I use are organic. I’ve fallen in love with the labor because I quite literally am putting as much of my physical self in the creation of a piece. I’ve tested this as well, thinking that I would be able to have this same relationship with a work of art if I use materials or surfaces not cared for by my hand, and it’s not the same. The way I work, due to the labor, is quite a slow process and I really enjoy that my drawings take the time that they do in order to manifest into reality. Seeing the work grow in such a way is a profound experience that drives me to birth (as opposed to “produce”) more work.

TA: This is definitely something that your work communicates to a viewer whether more or less subliminally. And I like how you drew the difference between birthing a work and producing. The latter has become a true testament to the level of influence the market poses on artists today.

Δυο προσωπεία [Two masks], 24-carat goldpoint, Egg tempera, on traditionally prepared panel, 7×5 in., 2019.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: But on a slightly different note, while we are speaking of today
Your work, when presented in the US especially, has often raised the subject of personal identity (whether ethnic or cultural). I enjoyed talking with you about this seemingly Western, perceived inability to embody one’s own heritage while simultaneously exploring or even merging with another. You mentioned this was not the case when you exhibited your work in Greece. Would you like to describe how your work was received there?

DBS: When I got accepted to the Athena Standards Residency I was both super excited to be in the “motherland” but also extremely nervous because I was always under the impression that my work would be regarded as passé because it is centered around mythology and antiquity. This is the type of mindset that was taught to me at various institutions. Being a Black artist also played into the critiques I received because the research that I did on antiquity was often disregarded. I thought this was a bizarre ideology since the United States is also known as The Melting Pot.

TA: Yes, one would think…alas…

DBS: In Athens, however, my work was so well received! It was honestly a huge shock to me and completely irradiated the thought that I could explore, merge, and integrate myself into a culture and a cultural history different than my own.

ΜΕΛΕΤΗ: Θεά ή μητέρα με το μακρύ λαιμό και τα χέρια πίσω από την πλάτη της [Study: Long-necked goddess or mother with hands behind her back (Cycladic Form A)], 24-carat goldpoint, on mineral paper, 7.5×4, 2019.
Photo courtesy of the artist ©Darryl Babatunde Smith

TA: Can you tell us more about your work while in Greece?

DBS: In Athens, my main goal was to conduct visual research on Cycladic sculptures and vase paintings, and also learn more about the contemporary art scene in Athens. I was blown away by the fact that there are contemporary Greek artists that are still using ideas, themes, and narratives from antiquity. There is a type of coexistence that exists within the city that also permeated into the art scene which really helped me move forward in my work. When I presented my studies of my now-completed works “To Sarpedon” and “Two Masks,” the narratives were immediately understood. It was a relief to show my work to an audience without having to prove my credibility and research. Elizabeth Plessa, the curator of the residency, introduced me to an artist, Christos Bokoros, who described the pursuits in my work with the phrase “το καλόν κ´ αγαθόν.” I knew this phrase very well due to researching Ancient Greek philosophy, and it is something I try to actively embed into work that I do. This phrase never came up in conversations with Western audiences so it was a great honor to know that the feeling actually does radiate from my work.

TA: It’s a great honor coming from Bokoros, too! And he finds me in full agreement.

Perhaps this is just limited to my own experiences as well, but I have found numerous instances during my career while studying outside of Greece where “Western” scholars embodied a stubbornness over their research conclusions around antiquity (and Byzantium in my case) that almost did not allow any further dialogue which was surprising coming from people who were also of a different heritage, just as you are.

I retain hope though that the dialogue will open more broadly, and work like yours, which embodies such in-depth research, and a passionate merging with the subject will pave the way. I was certainly blessed to study beside some marvelous people such as Professors Thelma K Thomas and Alexander Nagel that adds to this sense of hope.

Thank you so much for your time, and for answering all my questions! It has been absolutely wonderful speaking with you.

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