Thony Aiuppy is just the sort of artist and activist every community needs: one who’s fiercely determined to elevate the voices of the unheard.
Finding inspiration in news headlines, history, literature and his own insatiable curiosity, Aiuppy’s multilayered, colorful paintings tackle socioeconomic themes.
His new solo exhibition, Piercing the Veil, debuts at Riverside’s Yellow House from noon to 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 17, coinciding with CoRK Arts District’s Open Studios event. Perfectly complementing the gallery’s commitment to quality art and social justice, the selection of work tackles contemporary subjects like prejudice, inclusivity and the worker’s struggle.
“[The pieces are] figurative and abstract at the same time,” Aiuppy says, “Piercing the Veil is about the idea of revealing truth, or how some people have concealed truth over time, whether it’s locally, regionally or nationally.”
Civil Rights, racial disparity and the black experience are issues near and dear to Aiuppy’s heart. Working in a predominantly African-American Title 1 school compelled him to question everything he thought he knew to be true.
“A lot of things rocked my world about who I thought I was and what I thought authority or leadership in the classroom was,” he says. “For those two-and-a-half years, those students really taught me that I actually had to earn their trust. I had to deal not with blatant prejudice, but things under the surface that I just never knew I had struggled with.”
“That’s where the idea for piercing the veil comes through–maybe not pulling the curtain all the way, but me dealing with my own stuff and learning and getting these glimpses as I grow and become more aware,” Aiuppy explains. “There’s all this stuff going on. But until you start learning about this, peeling back some of the layers, looking for these areas of truth, it’s hard to understand. And it’s on you to learn.”
Fans of the Cummer Museum’s exhibit LIFT: Contemporary Expression of the African-American Experience will recognize Aiuppy’s distinctly tactile approach, but they’re in for an entirely novel artistic experience at the Yellow House exhibit.
“In the past, I’d probably say that I created narrative paintings,” the artist says, “but the work now is a completely new body of work.”
His portraits of James Weldon Johnson, A. Philip Randolph and Augusta Savage come to mind. Piercing the Veil introduces a new cast of characters, inspired by actual people, but typically unrecognizable.
“If you were to walk into a gallery and see them, I want you to see the full expression of who any painting or character is,” Aiuppy says. “A lot of these paintings are weird cut-outs, and no one has real faces in them, but I’ve had people who’ve come in for studio visits and they’ve said, ‘I don’t know who this person is, but I get a sense of what their cultural background is.’” In that sense, he taps into a figurative collage aesthetic recently renewed by artists like Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Benny Andrews and Tschabalala Self.
Manual labor is another theme that permeates the pieces he creates. After graduating from high school, Aiuppy had a job in a print shop. That first work experience left a lasting impression. Later, his quest for truth drew him to the plight of laborers throughout history—this concept runs deep throughout the exhibit.
“I’m hoping that with this diverse cast of characters in this show, this kind of revealing, that people will walk in and get connected,” Aiuppy says, “They might walk away thinking a little differently about the way they look at the world and, potentially, even seeing some blind spots in their lives.”
Bright and full of texture, Aiuppy’s art tempts viewers to get up close and personal, then step back and let the story engulf them.
How can they tell it’s an Aiuppy original?
“Because it’s collaged and it looks crazy,” the painter jokes.
The one-time St. Louis resident now lives in Springfield with his wife, musician Melissa Aiuppy, and their three young children. He earned his MFA in painting from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) and he’s been working as a professional artist in Jacksonville for five years. When he’s not teaching art classes at University of North Florida or FSCJ, he’s creating at his Phoenix Art District studio.
“I make stuff,” Aiuppy laughs. “Literally, that’s my job. I’m an artist and an educator. My goal in teaching is to teach them not just how to make work, but to teach my students how diverse the art world is and how they can actually be a player in it.”
Aiuppy has experienced the local art community as exceptionally welcoming.
“I believe when you live here, you have the opportunity to commit and not just use it as a platform to go on to bigger and better things. I think we’re finally at this place where people are making really amazing, badass stuff here in Jacksonville. It might be the beginning of it, but we’ve kind of hit a stride. We are the Harlem of the South.”
Creating is a sacred experience, and Aiuppy finds peace and inspiration in spirituality, from worship songs and timeless African-American hymns to litany and scripture as well.
“My work is kind of like worship in a way,” Aiuppy says. “If heaven were to come to Earth, it would be united and not divided. So what would that look like, if you could live in a place where there was that type of unification, where people can be who they are and it’s just good? I just want to be able to love people well. It’s not too hard. And if I can help people with being able to raise their voice, I want to be able to do that.”
He’s excited that his exhibit Piercing the Veil is about to open and that his work will be seen by the very people he hopes to help. And he’s grateful to the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida and Yellow House’s Hope McMath for making this opportunity possible.
Why should Jaxons check it out?
“Because it’s awesome,” Aiuppy chuckles. “I think there are things you can glean from it. You can’t say you’re a part of arts and culture if you don’t go see arts and culture.”
Thony Aiuppy manifests his personal awakening through his artwork. Like Isaiah, he had a vision and it’s awakened him to the unseen. Aiuppy hopes his work will awaken viewers to their own prejudices, inspire them to love one another passionately, and spark debate about the true meaning of equality.