The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Shikeith

Nicole Martinez
Dec 1, 2021 1:00PM

Shikeith occupies multiple aesthetic realms at once. Working across film, photography, sculpture, and installation, the visual artist presents work that is edgy, yet sensitive to unspoken truths about identity, transformation, trauma and healing. Shikeith explores complex feelings in a relatable way, building off his experience as a queer Black man. Perhaps that’s why he’s able to reach people who may not otherwise see themselves as consumers or appreciators of art; his work encourages vulnerability and a deep connection to his subjects’ emotional worlds.

When I reached Shikeith over the phone at the end of September, the Pittsburgh-based artist had just taken a break from rehearsing for his experimental opera, notes towards becoming a spill (2021), on New York City’s Lower East Side. His week in the city had been productive: Shikeith rehearsed the choreography while the production’s costume designer, Carlos Soto, sketched his ideas as the dancers writhed on the wooden dance floor. For notes, a work about personal transformation, the dancers practice fluid rond de jambes that abruptly halt and shift to jerking movements; Rashad McPherson’s score equally delivers an eerie fever-pitch and Gospel-inspired vocals. The opera, which debuted in Rockaway Beach in October as part of the Performa 2021 Biennial, is Shikeith’s first foray into performance art.

“[I’ve] never worked in performance,” he said. “But I feel like what I’ve done lends itself to this kind of medium.”

O' my body, make of me always a man who questions!, 2020
Yossi Milo Gallery

If you’ve been following this visionary young artist’s hurtle toward success, you might argue that just about every medium serves Shikeith’s message. Interested in revealing the layered complexities lived by queer Black men, Shikeith deftly navigates between mediums to create provocative and immersive works of art. Dreamy, sensual, and emotionally charged, Shikeith’s oeuvre mines his personal experiences, and cycles through a metamorphic process of life, death, and rebirth.

Shikeith connects deeply with “a collective experience among queer Black men,” he explained. His work creates a vernacular for the sort of processional healing he hopes his community is inching toward. In works such as the film installation To Bathe a Mirror (2018), as well as the photographic series that inspired notes, one can witness that journey. Allegorical threads like bodies of water and the color blue tap into the psychic experiences of Black people, their generational traumas and their ancestral histories; while evocative photographs of Black men unveil the pressures and stereotypes weighing them down.

to bathe a mirror, 2018
Yossi Milo Gallery

Just as he weaves his way through mediums to formulate his ideas, Shikeith similarly traverses between commercial work and conceptual practice. In the last two years alone, Shikeith has presented in solo and group exhibitions around the country, including the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh; Yossi Milo Gallery, in New York, which represents him; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (the last of which acquired his photographic work, Hunter, 2019). At the same time, he has regularly photographed editorial campaigns for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. During our interview, Shikeith speaks thoughtfully about his career path and runaway success, equally humble and proud of what he’s managed to achieve as someone who nearly didn’t pursue a career in art.

“I’m able to keep experimenting with all these fields that I have worked up to,” he said. “I feel really excited about that.”


Inclined to create since childhood—Shikeith’s grandmother was a poet and a singer, and his paternal grandparents were photographers and archivists—Shikeith developed a fascination with the camera in high school, inspired by the Tyra Banks-helmed reality show America’s Next Top Model. But as the first person to attend college in his family, he initially intended to become a plastic surgeon when he enrolled at Penn State University. Fortunately, a high school counselor sent him to intern at a creative agency before starting his freshman year, refocusing his career toward fashion photography and advertising.

After college, Shikeith landed a gig as a photo editor at People StyleWatch magazine but felt restless. “I started to want to use the camera to talk about personal things that I didn’t have enough confidence to talk about,” he said. “I had an urgency to wonder if other young, queer Black men from urban communities were experiencing the same things.”

Shikeith created a body of work that featured Black men on the edge of disaster. Moody, black-and-white images of his subjects saw them teetering on the edge of a roof or in ruined buildings, but there was a quality about the way they were posed and photographed that suggested emotional liberation. A friend encouraged the artist to apply for a grant through the Heinz Endowments, and, successful in his application, he created #Blackmendream (2014). The documentary project, which included interviews from Black men about their experiences and emotional worlds, went viral and became the platform from which Shikeith developed his artistic interests.

“[The video] was released in December 2014 and within a year I was showing at other galleries, [and participating in] lectures and talks at universities,” he said. “It was a quick whirlwind off this initial body of work.”

But it was his time at Yale University, where he earned his MFA, that honed Shikeith’s art-making practice. While he still leans heavily into personal narrative, Shikeith’s work is driven by research that involves site visits to specific bodies of water or ancestral homes, as well as lengthy internet searches. And where his early bodies of work tended toward the figurative, Shikeith today is increasingly leaning toward post-minimalist abstraction, without sacrificing his initial instincts. Organic materials like wood, water, glass, and gases double as aesthetic props loaded with meaning for their shape-shifting qualities.

His show “Feeling the Spirit in the Dark,” which he presented at the Mattress Factory in 2020, was a meditative chamber that showcases this evolution. Viewers stepped onto a wooden plank hovering over water, with a haint blue neon lighting the otherwise dark room. Shikeith describes the light as an amulet that “wards off ghosts and evil spirits,” while the water simultaneously “symbolizes [...] purification (baptism) and the horrors and racial terror inflicted upon enslaved Africans during the forced voyage across the Atlantic (Middle Passage).”

Black Balloon, III, 2021
Yossi Milo Gallery

Now, notes toward becoming a spill, which evolved from a photo series to an installation and now, an opera, similarly illustrates Shikeith’s interest in personal transformation. With the performers outfitted in flowing blue garments, and their movements displaying a kind of metamorphosis, Shikeith alludes to the personal evolution he believes is underway for queer Black men and the Black community as a whole.

For Shikeith, making this work is an act of love, a gift to those like him who have struggled and found a way to break through. “[I’m] creating ruptures in these worlds around us [that] have started to constrain us...I’m mixing and meshing and conjuring a magical recipe every time and seeing what occurs” he said. “There is always this revision and metamorphosis happening.”

The Artsy Vanguard 2021

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.

Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2021 and collect works by the artists.

Nicole Martinez

Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Shikeith, 2021. Courtesy of Shikeith.