Born Detroit, 1990, Lives in Detroit
In Transcendence: A Portrait of Corey Teamer, a 2018 mural by Ijania Cortez at Brush and Baltimore, the eponymous figure rotates to face the viewer through three successive images. Each image is slightly larger and at a slightly higher elevation, and this, combined with the glowing orange, Rothko-esque background, reinforces the ascendant trajectory implied by the title.
Cortez met Teamer at a family bonfire in the North End and told him he was very beautiful – something she says that Black men are reminded of too infrequently. In preparation for the portrait, Cortez photographed and sketched Teamer and held long, deep discussions with him about his background, which had not always been easy.
The paintwork in the mural is confident and accomplished, belying the fact that, remarkably, this was Cortez’s first mural. The vibrant, neon color scheme is attention-grabbing and amplifies the painting’s dramatic lighting, which comes simultaneously from multiple directions.
Cortez uses a neon palette in her paintings to indicate different perspectives on the “unnatural” environment in which many Black Americans live. She points out that conditions such as abandoned neighborhoods, limited educational options, and poor dietary options should not be natural in the world’s most prosperous country, yet, despite this, Black Americans continue to excel culturally.
By sensitively capturing the individuality of Black men while using an “unnatural” palette that symbolizes the world they live in, Cortez’s paintings simultaneously counter both the stereotyping of Black masculinity and the normalization of their “unnatural” environment, while tacitly celebrating their transcendence of that environment.
The first studio painting that Cortez was happy with was 2019’s Echoes. The subject is a young artist, and Cortez’s painting shows him in a relaxed, crouched position staring into the corner of a pink room. Space in Cortez’s paintings is as much psychological as physical, and she sees the corner as a place that offers protection from all directions. The saturated pink is the color of life, and perhaps even the womb. The Echo of the title refers to the subject being at a point in his life where he is finding his voice and hearing it echo back to him—a sonic metaphor that recalls Lacan’s mirror stage. It also reinforces a sense that Cortez’s conversations with her subjects are perhaps a form of counseling, something that Cortez thinks is still unfortunately stigmatized in the Black community.
Cortez’s education in painting has been self-directed. As a young person, she sketched and painted backdrops for her church, but her education in Detroit’s public schools failed to convey art’s power or career possibilities. In her mid-twenties, she got to know prominent Detroit artists such as Tiff Massey and Sydney James and undertook an apprenticeship working as their assistant.
Cortez is also constantly experimenting to see what works, deconstructing how other artists do things, and confirming her methods by talking to more experienced painters. Aired Regards (2019) is a portrait of Ghanaian painter Patrick Quarm, a naturally reticent man Cortez befriended while he was doing a residency in Detroit. During the painting, she learned to apply fine details in oil on top of the brighter acrylics she had used to this point.
A late bloomer, Cortez happily admits to being in love with painting, and you can feel that love in the attention to details like the collar of Quarm’s shirt, which is almost tactile in its form.
In conversation, Cortez talks about the limitations of capturing her subjects’ often contradictory performative and inner lives with a single portrait. Preservation (2020) is a study of a young gay Black man, who is outwardly very confident, but inwardly is constantly on guard. Gabriel (2020) is about a physically imposing man who keeps his creative dreams locked away.
In 2021, Cortez completed two significant murals. Lafayette and Mr. Gartner features a father and son from the North End who led very different lives but are both now deceased. Cortez represents them as sharply dressed and approximately the same age so that they can meet as men. Black People’s Free Store is based on a photo of the founders of a pioneering community-focused organization in Grand Rapids. Both works illustrate Cortez’s belief that the local community should see themselves in her murals.
Most excitingly, though, Cortez is working in the studio on an as-yet unshown series investigating bioluminescence – the ability of organisms to create their own light. It is a profound metaphor that perhaps applies as much to the painter as to the subjects she paints.
Steve Panton, December 2021