Commonwealth and Council

a shoe, a phone, a castle

Danielle Dean


Commonwealth and Council presents recent body of work consisting of drawings, sculptures, and videos by Danielle Dean. “a shoe, a phone, a castle” examines media devices and their role in constructing, communicating, and upholding ambiguous and often oppressive ideologies, as well as their potential subversion. Drawing from Gold Coast trade history, YouTube self-branding, Marshall McLuhan, telemarketing scripts, and Nike product reviews, Dean reveals the pervasive thread of violence and change in history and its vehicles.

“True Red Ruin” takes as a starting point the Elmina Castle in Ghana, brought over in pre-fabricated form on ten Portuguese ships in the 1400s, established to protect trade interests in the region. Through a fictionalized version of this history, Dean probes at the structures that shape and enforce hierarchies and racist constructs. These tools of oppression are made in brick and stone as much as abstractions and ideologies. Interweaving Elmina Castle’s history with the lives of Dean’s sister and her friends, “True Red Ruin” is shot in Cuney Homes, a historic affordable housing community in Houston, Texas. Displacing homes and built on a sacred site, the castle was at once a symbol of invasion, protection, power, capital, surveillance, and a model that would be reproduced along the Gold Coast for centuries. These strongholds made permanent the presence of Europeans in West Africa, and would become key points of slave trade, eventually serving as storage for both goods and people. Dean carries out an examination of the castle as both medium and cultural technology. Its function as early panopticon is a striking example of a visual regime of constant surveillance, its architecture preemptively criminalizing the surrounding population. Also contained in its form was the idea of the castle itself as a revolutionary prototype for logistics—a device for storing and transmitting the system of capital and commerce that would ground the historical event of slavery throughout the region, and the expansion of capitalism throughout the world.  

“True Red Ruin” hovers at the ambiguous moment of the castle’s arrival, a time of suspicion and reluctance, but also guarded optimism of its effect on the economy of the region. “a shoe, a phone, a castle” weaves together a counter-narrative of precarious labor and the violence of capitalism. “A Portrait of True Red” tells the story of Sam Jones, who merges with the Nike sneaker True Red Vampire. Her monologue draws from historical accounts of political violence such as slave revolts in the 1700s, police brutality towards Black Panther member Assata Shakur, and violence against the workers in China who make Nike sneakers. The pre-fabricated nature of the props made for “True Red Ruin”recalls Elmina Castle’s history as well as the ubiquitous marketing techniques that commodify our subjectivities.

The complicated lives of objects, like those of Elmina Castle and the Vampire sneaker, are brought to the forefront in the hand-drawn animation “True Red,” in which the protagonist sneaker morphs into various forms—a bat, a castle, a red substance, a woman. The medium of animation is a nod to its use by avant-garde artists seeking progressive social change in the early twentieth century, as well as its cooption by private companies as a marketing tool to give their inanimate products “life.” Dean’s multifaceted practice insists on critical reflection of the very fabric of our world—encouraging radical readings of history and media’s place in it, to question the false neutrality of social and historical constructs.

Danielle Dean is an Alabama-born, London-raised visual artist currently based in Los Angeles and New York City. This is her third exhibition with Commonwealth and Council. Recent solo exhibition includes “Focus” at The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY. Select group exhibitions include: “In Practice: Material Deviance,” Sculpture Center, NY; “Lagos Live,” Goethe Institut Nigeria, Lagos, Nigeria; “Experimental People,” The Highline, NY; “Shifters,” Art in General, NY; “It Can Howl,” Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta; “What Shall We Do Next?,” DiverseWorks, Houston, TX; “Effeminaires,” Western Exhibitions, Chicago, IL; and “Made in L.A. 2014,” Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Upcoming group exhibition includes: Lafayette Anticipation—Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris. Recent screenings include: MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY; Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA; and Vox Populi, Philadelphia, PA. Dean received her MFA from California Institute of the Arts and BFA from Central Saint Martins in London. She is a fellow of the Whitney Independent Study Program and Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, and an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, the Core Program in Houston, and The Drawing Center’s Open Sessions in New York. Dean is a recipient of the 2014 Emerging Artist Grant from Rema Hort Mann Foundation and 2015 Visual Arts award from Creative Capital.