Christopher Udemezue describes a stark binary in perceptions of Caribbean culture, contrasting the pleasures of flavorful food and island music with the darkness of colonial violence and persistent homophobia. His practice mines his identity as a queer Caribbean-American. Growing up on Long Island, Udemezue felt connected to his heritage through his relatives, especially his Jamaica-born mother. But as he matured, he found few spaces that celebrated both LGBTQ and Caribbean diasporic communities. Through collaboration and event organizing, Udemezue fosters connections among these groups. His current project at the Brooklyn nonprofit Recess investigates cultural longing, assimilation, and healing.
Udemezue found his artistic tribe early. As an undergraduate at Parsons, he befriended members of the queer ballroom and art collective House of Ladosha (est. 2007), including performing artists Antonio Blair (La’Fem Ladosha) and Juliana Huxtable. Udemezue adopted the name Neon Christina when he joined the House in 2008. He discovered the power of collaboration while working with his Ladosha sisters on events that spanned drag, performance, music, video, and installation. Udemezue’s first solo exhibition, in 2015 at Bushwick’s Stream Gallery, fused his interests in gender, sexuality, and ethnic heritage. Paying homage to the heroic resistance of a group of impoverished gay and trans youths in Kingston, Jamaica, known as the Gully Queens, the artist photographed friends in poses that borrowed from art historical tropes of religious and political martyrdom. Dwayne (2015) shows a person in drag, complete with blue wig and long false eyelashes, who portrays the expiring protagonist of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793).
In 2016 Udemezue founded RAGGA NYC, a roving series of nightlife and art events for queer Caribbean artists. The New Museum’s public engagement department invited RAGGA NYC to participate in a residency in 2017. Udemezue worked closely with assistant curator Sara O’Keeffe on programming—including family-style dinners for RAGGA NYC members and friends—as well as an exhibition featuring work by members of the group. Udemezue contributed photographs reenacting the vodou ceremony that precipitated the 1791 Haitian slave revolt. The religious ritual, led by the priestess Cécile Fatiman, helped spark the thirteen-year Haitian Revolution. Udemezue cast RAGGA NYC member Maya Margarita Monés, an artist of Dominican and Haitian heritage, as Fatiman. Dressed in scarlet among white-robed figures, Monés performed Fatiman’s ritual actions, including taking an oath of revenge against oppressors.
Udemezue’s work remains committed to confronting and rectifying cultural trauma. As part of the Shed’s Open Call program this past summer, Udemezue presented a new series called “Yard” (the Jamaican term for “home”). He printed on canvas portraits of himself, family, and friends, and incorporated small items—sand, gold leaf—into the compositions before dipping them in resin. The ghostly, neon-hued images—transformed from more traditional photographs in the process—were inspired by Udemezue’s 2018 visit to Jamaica and his mother’s stories about her childhood. One work from “Yard,” She said they call it ‘Poco’ (2019), references the religion Pocomania, showing mysterious shrouded figures bathed in blue light. In addition to producing new work for Recess, Udemezue is co-organizing the second annual trip for CONNEK JA, a cultural exchange organization that brings international allies to connect with LGBTQ artists in Jamaica. The tour is scheduled for spring 2020.