Bad Selections by Andre Bradley




Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. He was shot by Thomas Hagan, a twenty-two-year-old black man, seven days before my mother was born. Alex Haley and Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published the same year, and changed my life. At a time when I felt lost and was making bad choices, I needed focus and found it. I didn’t know much about Malcolm X or the world outside my neighborhood in Philadelphia. Hearing the narrative of Malcolm in “his” voice, telling “his” story through the magic scribe of Haley, put a spell on me. I still want to be like Malcolm X. In Malcolm, I saw a tender model of transformation and masculinity, both passionate and caring. Hearing his experiences as a young boy, seeing his life cut short in literature, was a challenge and a warning to make something of myself.

One of the most important ways I’ve learned about the black man’s image in the imagination of my country is by reading autobiographies and fiction by black men in times of crisis. The contemplation of being indiscernible from a mass of black faces in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man compelled me to distinguish myself, in the hope that I would be recognized as a man of distinction and not someone who died in a poor neighborhood. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination— indeed, everything and anything except me,” Ellison writes,¹ and I agree.

I became anxious reading Richard Wright’s Native Son from 1940. When Bigger Thomas killed that white woman, I couldn’t imagine his fate, being seen in her bedroom by her parents after killing her. It’s eerie to think that as recently as 1955, Emmett Till would be murdered so horrifically, merely for whistling at a white woman. I remember the image of Emmett’s face in that casket. Who created Bigger Thomas? Was it Wright, America, or America’s imagination? “Here he was sitting with them and they did not know that he had murdered a white girl and cut her head off and burnt her body.”² Sitting in his rat-infested apartment eating dinner with his family, Bigger continued to think. It was an image I was not ready to face. I closed the book and never finished.

Like Malcolm X, Ellison, and Wright, I inevitably bring my own experience into my work. My work externalizes notions of inferiority as a way to heal myself. Although I’ve come a long way, it’s difficult to realize that even to this day, as a twenty-seven-year-old man and a Rhode Island School of Design MFA candidate, I need help. In my photo-sculptural work, I use provisional materials like tape, cardboard, nonarchival paper, and poor digital effects to explore the precarity of finding temporary solutions to larger issues. In Xeroxing my family photographs, I emphasize the distortions that constrict personal growth. As representations, the people in the images become featureless and faceless. I withhold a complete picture. In my work, cardboard boxes represent both public and private spaces. They become a vehicle for silent visual protest. In plain sight, as a plain sight. My muted color palette, punctuated by loud flashes of innocent blue or guilty red, mirrors a conversation between high and low, denial and acceptance, blackness and whiteness. Painters often use masking tape to “mask out” certain areas of a painting. In my work, masking tape suggests both neglect and repair. By using these materials, I attempt to represent what happens to the psyches and images of African Americans in the educational system, in the media, and on the s treet itself. They are thrown away, made silent, treated like garbage. The unresolved, even disorganized, nature of my work creates a defensive field in which the eye is called upon to judge perceptions of worthlessness and unconventional notions of beauty. If black men are perceived as lacking in value and worth, my work is a complete gestation of this reality, and its expression in visual and material form.

In moments of stress our bodies react. Materially, physically even, they signal growth or deterioration. Sixth grade was an extremely stressful year for me. Among other things, my classmates shoved me into lockers because I was small. The stress that year caused my alopecia areata (AA) to flare up. AA is an autoimmune disease in which hair is lost, usually from the scalp, due to the body’s failure to recognize “self.” The body destroys its own tissue as if it w ere an invader. My hair began to fall out, and my peers made fun of me. They brought patches and glue to class. In Bad Selection (Alopecia) (2015), I appropriate images from barbershop charts. Placing them onto a blue backdrop in Photoshop, I crudely select fields of the f ace to delete. The resulting image is graphically arresting as the sky blue seems to emerge through the distorted face. The lightness of the colors and the floating nature of the head suggest a negated body consumed by blue. Each portrait is a broken person, violently disfigured against the backdrop of innocent and youthful blue. In sixth grade, I began to learn about the dynamics of educational institutions—where I did or did not fit in them, based on my perceived defects. The educational institutions that ostensibly empower us can sometimes make us feel incompetent and incapable.


1. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995).

2. Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), 101

Andre Bradley


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