Antonio Darden, named South Arts fellow for Georgia, draws on tragedy for his art

Sept. 1 is a date Antonio Darden is unlikely to forget.

It’s the day the Atlanta artist was recognized at a celebratory South Arts event. He was named the 2022 South Arts/Southern Prize fellow for Georgia.

“It’s humbling. I haven’t really wrapped my head around it,” he says of the award.

Sept. 1 would also have been his brother Rico’s 41st birthday — had he not been shot and killed in 2018 by a Georgia State Patrol officer.

Darden’s most recent show, “Rico” at THE END Project Space, now closed, dealt directly with his brother’s death; and a SketchUp rendering of the crime scene that he created from memory was one of 10 images he submitted with his Southern Prize application.

Credit: Courtesy of South Arts

Credit: Courtesy of South Arts

Now in its sixth year, the Southern Prize awards $5,000 fellowships to one artist in each of the nine states in the South Arts’ region: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. All the artists were recognized, and the winner announced, at the Sept. 1 event. (A list of the fellows, winner and finalist is available here.)

According to the Southern Prize jurors, Darden “gets his point across in simple, but materially diverse ways that are really powerful. It uses humor, but it’s also deeply tragic. It feels like he’s resolving a lot of things for himself, but also things that others can enter into. We appreciate the simplicity of the materiality; nothing is too much. It just does its job and has a space for the audience to be a part of it.”

On the surface, “Rico” appeared simple, almost cartoonish, yet it was imbued with grief and humor, faith and satire. It was also the first time Darden included religious imagery in his work.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“‘Rico’ taps into a fertile image bank of childhood iconography from cartoons and movies, mashed up against the grim reality of adulthood and innocence lost,” wrote art critic Felicia Feaster in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Says Darden: “It took me four years to come out of this cocoon of shame, guilt, embarrassment and grief, and to be able to address the issues (of my brother’s death) comfortably. To get to a place where I could present it with a vein of comedy.”

Darden says he’s thankful to be alive. “We have all been in traffic stops — it could have been me. I am raising a 5-year-old son who at some point will have to deal with his own issues of what he has to face in the world. It’s scary.”

Darden graduated Georgia State University in 2006 with a Master of Fine Arts in three-dimensional design with a concentration in sculpture. He and fellow artist Matt Sigmon created the collaborative The Art Officials in 2009 and his work has been exhibited at the High Museum of Art, MOCA GA, Swan Coach House Gallery, Zuckerman Museum of Art and in the United Kingdom and Mexico.

Darden is acutely aware that Rico could be seen as reactionary or exploitive, tapping into today’s headlines, and that he could be perceived as having a “niche” as an artist. But for him the work has a simple mission — to carry a message to others who have experienced similar losses. “My perspective and my ability to regurgitate what could be viewed as pain and harm becomes something else in art -- healing and satire.”

His upcoming show “10-13,” which opened Sept. 8 at Day & Night Projects, covers some of the same ground but from the point of view of his father, who died six months after Rico. He was a big fellow, Darden, says, charismatic, compassionate, sensitive. “He didn’t know how to deal with it,” Darden says. “The first thing he wanted was revenge.”

Darden is mixed race but identifies as African American and is now the only survivor in his immediate family. His mother, “a little Indian woman,” died in 2007. “If she was still alive, she would be crying from the mountain top about what happened to her son, crying for justice.”

According to Darden, the medical examiner told them the injuries on Rico’s body were not consistent with the police report. The family hired a lawyer who later dropped the case. Darden didn’t pursue it.

For all his willingness to address his brother’s death in his art, Darden has avoided it in key ways. He doesn’t know the name of the officer who pulled the trigger and hasn’t read the police report. “I have this fear of getting the answers,” he says.

The title of his Day & Night show, “10-13,” refers to the number of the house in North Carolina where he lived with his family before they moved to Atlanta. The number also has police connotations. In New York state, it is the police call for officer in need of assistance and in Georgia, it refers to the form that initiates a person’s involuntary commitment for psychiatric evaluation.

Darden says he feels privileged to have his art as a form of expression. He sees it as a way to deal not only with the death of his immediate family but also with the stigma of mental illness and generations of domestic violence. “There is so much unresolved grief and trauma around that in my family,” he says.

“We have to dig deep, all of us, and talk about those things we don’t want to talk about. That’s what we should be doing as artists. There are millions of people dealing with the same kinds of things, but who don’t know how to express it. As artists, we have the ability, the tools, to get it out. We can create something outside of ourselves that another person can grab hold of and digest.”

“We are all crooked vessels on this earth.”

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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