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Artistic Illuminations: Frank Frazier

Those of us who have had the pleasure of knowing Artist Frank Frazier personally over the years of being Artists ourselves are privileged to witness the evolution of his genius whether we realize it or not. As one of his countless mentees and adopted granddaughters [he calls my name about 50 times per hour -_-] I cherish him more than words can properly express. On the outside, he’s a Vietnam veteran, domineering business man, and family oriented person. On the inside of his mind, innovation couples with oratory historian and educator extraordinaire. Though he is a man of few words, I am very impressed by his most recent thought processes. Please allow me to explain.

As a professional artist for over fifty years Frank Frazier’s original works have spread the gamut from watercolors, ink and ceramics to silkscreen, collage and fiber art. No matter his media of choice for the day he is always unapologetically a Black Artist first and he never lets his viewer forget it. Working in his booth during this year’s 10th anniversary Harlem Fine Arts Show at the Riverside Church and on board the Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage 2019 have allowed me to spend an abundance of time to study his work and ask some important questions about his technique.

Now on one wall we displayed his most recent style of work which is done using predominantly shoe polish. These pieces show the viewers and collectors Frank’s innate historian as he recalls important events in Black civil rights struggles from the tightly packed slave ships intentionally including pregnant women, to the 1960’s peaceful protests of the South and additionally the Black Lives Matter and women’s marches in our present day breaking news. In my observation these shoe polish pieces are very dear to his heart and autobiographical in nature, incorporating his own stories as a Harlem native shockingly experiencing Jim Crow's ugly nature in North Carolina while wearing a United States Army uniform. The use of shoe polish is a calculated decision after Frank came across a used can from the 1930’s which reignited his own infuriation regarding the American entertainment tradition of Minstrel shows where White males used shoe polish to paint their faces and mimic Black people. The shoe polish series has become an undeviating memorial to African American history.

As we move along to the main wall of Frank’s exhibit we showed a wide range of his other volumes including Aisha & Omari, one of his most collected bodies of collage work. Several times annually the artist finds himself in Dakar Senegal where the local community has since embraced him as one of their own elders. Befriending tailors, market women and families alike, we can view these fiber art collages and feel the affinity he has for West African culture. The recurring compositions show a main figure, masculine in nature with a prominent hand crafted wood or copper and brass mask as the head. He talks about the spiritual leaders he has encountered and uses a plethora of fibers to build up their presence in his work. That main figure is always surrounded by many women rendered as tall Black models with long modest dresses and upright statures. Anybody and everybody who knows Frank can attest to his love and appreciation of Black women and their important contributions to global African diasporic society.

In his most recent assemblages, called The Shackle Series, we witness the merging of his Aisha collage methods with very intentional objects that speak directly to the African American experience. My favorite piece was a large shadow box about four feet tall with an Aisha floating in the top two thirds. Directly underneath there was a vintage ceremonious beaded belt in West African style, possibly originating from the Mali empire. On both ends of the belt were hand carved masks in ebony wood. Further below was a bundle of items that drew me in ever closer and created so many curiosities in my mind. The presence of a rusted key lead my eyes to a pair of eerily small slave shackles from Goree Island, Senegal where many slave ships carrying our ancestors sailed from. Alongside the shackles he deliberately placed sand and stones from the slave quarters in the dungeons of Goree Island as well which I felt represented the actual earth which birthed our predecessors. As I became engulfed, I spotted a currency I was unfamiliar with. I asked Frank and he answered in his matter of fact simplified way, “It’s Confederate money” with a nod and a small smile of appreciation for my asking. So many inquiries flooded my mind all at once. “How was it used in it’s original form? Who had access to it? Where did he procure it? How much is it worth?” and most importantly “Why did Frank Frazier use it?” Then I spotted a tattered Confederate flag wrapped around the right shackle while the U.S. flag and currency paralleled it, intertwined with the left shackle. He saw my puzzled look and responded “We think that those flags and currencies are so different but they’re really not”.

Mixed with the flags and monies were raw cotton plants including the obviously painful thorns to remind us exactly what we became enslaved by; the back breaking task of physically growing the United States economy by the sweat of our own ancestors brow with little, collectively, to show for it. Insert light bulb switch here, turn on the lights, Frank’s work upon deep introspection caused me to have an enlightening moment that gradually snuck up into my subconscious. His genius became apparent to me last week, causing a new level of understanding for his intelligent choices in his craft.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to ask the artist about his intentions face to face. Thankful for his example of tenacity as a full time creative. Obliged for his constant desire to help his fellow artists figure things out. Indebted to him for his patience and persistence not only for others but for his own growth and development. Never have I met another artist of his caliber who took better care of other artists than any one person could ever really know. It it my intention to continue to study and document Frank Frazier as one of our current art giants alive. He helps pave the way for future greatness, reminding us of where we come from and who we are so we have the shoulders to stand on in order to reach ever higher. Quiet as its kept, he is without a doubt, an American master artist. You can tell his following and collector list is serious too when he does live silk screening and the waiting line of his loyal fans wraps around the room!

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