In a dark room, projectors display two different portraits on opposites walls of the same corner. The figure on the left is wearing a black t-shirt that reads “BLACK MAN” and the figure on the right is wearing the same, but reads “BLACKBOOK”
Black Box (2022), video installation view

Michael Coppage

Nathaniel Hendrickson

From conceptual art to a monumental celebration of Black and LGBTQIA+ bodies, Michael Coppage’s work foregrounds the everyday lived experience of marginalized communities in the United States. Spanning visual languages from contemporary advertisement, product branding, photography, and documentary to more traditional approaches like choreography, painting, and lost-wax bronze casting, Coppage’s works confront, deconstruct, and dismantle imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values by examining whiteness and calling for accountability for the occupation and terrors that have shaped and continue to shape the lived experience of marginalized communities of this country since its founding.

Nathaniel Hendrickson: Who do you make work for?

Michael Coppage: I've been thinking a lot about that. Originally it started out as this thing for me to purge all these heavy things that I've been living with my entire life and to crystallize them into something that lived outside of myself so that I was unburdened. I realize now that I'm making the work for the people who are the most impacted by the subject that the work addresses. And so a lot of my work is collaborative.

When I look around, I see most of my friends aren't artists, and I don't know that there's a healthy space in a lot of people's lives where they can fully unpack their lives. So I use my practice to help provide a vehicle to do that, and I benefit from it in many ways. But they benefit from it, too.

And so, my work is about everyday people. And I feel like, if there's a change to be made, a change to be had, it must happen with everyday people if it's going to last.

NH: Looking at your recent works, especially Black Box and Rainbow Box, and the video pieces that you made for both, you seem to really drive home this point about centering different voices. Can you talk a little bit about those projects?

MC: The video piece for 12 Commandments was produced in tandem with a series of bronze sculptures that I'm currently making. Since I only have three done and I'm attempting to make twelve, the video does a great job of forecasting what poses are remaining. But it also is compelling itself because it pulls the viewer into an experience that they maybe might not be able to relate to.

12 Commandments is narrated by a heartbeat that starts at rest and then gradually increases. And I find that when people watch that film, they get pulled into it. Their breathing changes and they become more aware of how they're feeling and how their heart rate is climbing.

Rainbow Box, on the other hand, is a community impact project centering and amplifying the voice of Black LGBTQIA+ individuals by sharing their stories through a series of interdisciplinary offerings. The work is comprised of large format photographs, temporary and semi-permanent murals, audio from interviews and a choreographed recorded performance. The project unpacks the intersectionality of race, sexuality, and gender and serves both as a listening and education tool related to lived experiences, evolution of preferred pronouns, their definitions, and queer diasporic aesthetics. This project is meant to ground the subjects in their humanity and be a conduit for connectivity.

NH: It seems like it requires an enormous amount of coordination for your work to be done.

MC: Yeah, sometimes I don't even feel like an artist, I feel like a project manager, because I'm having to coordinate not only the thirteen guys from the Black Box or the people involved in the Rainbow Box project, but I must coordinate the space and the choreography, the videographer and the audio and the editing—there's so many moving parts.

NH: You must operate like a producer in a way?

MC: Yeah, exactly, “DJ KHALED, we the best!” I'm going to start saying that. “Michael Coppage, we the best!”

NH: What's the response been like to work that seems more confrontational, for example: Dance Around the Monkey and even Whitebox? How do you sustain yourself when you get hate mail?

MC: A lot of people describe the work as confrontational or political. And I think that that's because we have politicized social issues. I think race is a social issue, not a political issue. And the same thing goes for gender and sexual orientation. All of these are social issues.

I did a talk last week in Dayton about a bunch of paintings of white people depicted as white monkeys. But because those paintings are loaded with truth and by truth, the types of monkeys, where they live, the definition and re-imagining of what a monkey is when referring to a person, when it's not based on physical appearance or skin color.

In Asia, the monkey is based on a behavior, specifically the disruption of harmony. And when you talk about the indigenous folks whose lives and harmony were disrupted by the Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, etc. then you create this context for a version of who a monkey could be.

And then if we bring that current and we talk about gentrification and redlining and redistricting, saying these are examples of contemporary disruption—this isn't a revenge thing. The only interest that I have is punching through the veil. It's so easy for people who aren't Black to disconnect from Black issues, especially when it's a Black motif and someone black is centered. But the moment I center whiteness, which is what I do in a great deal of my work, white people engage. And sometimes it's out of curiosity, sometimes it's out of guilt, sometimes it's out of anger.

This work is a visual prompt that invites them to a much more complicated discussion about a lived experience that they are unaware of. And the goal is to help them become more aware of their role in this lived experience so that they don't keep making the same mistakes, so that they don't keep inflicting harm.

Black Box being smaller and mounted on top of White Box speaks to the division of power through scale. If scale represents power in this country, this is very much a piece about how much power is wielded over us and over our bodies.

It was also an accountability thing. Putting the faces of those police officers up there reinforced the reality that is so easily consumed at this point because of how desensitized we all are. The piece creates a moment of stillness, where everyone who encounters it can contemplate and think about the stories that they've seen or heard.

It appears that I decentered myself and Blackness, which I don't think is true. I've just co-centered whiteness. And I think 2020 was probably the first time in American history anyway where whiteness was decentered, if just for a moment.

And it all seemed like it came in response to  George Floyd and all the unrest that occurred, but a lot of these folks, including myself, were making this work before the social justice movement. A lot of us weren't responding to the moment. We have been carefully chronicling our lived experiences all along.

You mentioned the hate mail, right? I've never gotten hate mail before. But I consulted a writer friend and we plotted how we could get more attention for my work. I decided I was going to do a performance piece. I believe that there's a deliberate attempt to destabilize Black people in our country by the people who own and operate the media, radio, and TV.

People with money, privilege and power have this ability to really control the narratives of Black people. Not our personal narratives, but the narrative of how our country sees and interfaces with Black people. And so, I attempted to deceive a legitimate media news outlet. So, I wrote a story, I went on a website, I found a story about some Black dude doing a crime, took it and I flipped it, and I turned the guy from a perpetrator to a victim.

And the story was about me. I turned myself into a victim of a hate crime, and I was able to get a reporter to come and interview me for two hours. I completely fabricated the story, and she published it. And when she published it, it came out with an ad for ADT Home Security. Right underneath it! At the time my work was at 21c [in Cincinnati], and they called me because the PR person was wondering why I didn't say anything about their clientele sending this mail.

And I said to them, the reporter got it wrong. And I know she got it wrong because I carefully detailed and fabricated the story.

The paper had to do a revision, and then it came out online and it's still up. Even after I kind of came out of the closet about it, it's still up because it's a great piece. It shows that the media can be manipulated by someone with no privileged power or money.

Right. So, imagine what someone with all three could do.

NH: I recently visited Memphis and went to see the Lorraine Motel and the Civil Rights Museum, not even going into the museum, just seeing that hotel took the breath out of me, and I could cut the air with a knife knowing what happened there. There's a similar feeling like that with 12 Commandments.

MC: Well, the goal is twelve, And I currently have three. I'm finishing the third one right now. To make the sculptures, I'm doing these endurance poses, sometimes for six and a half hours, in positions that many people of color find themselves in and that sometimes lead to their death.

How many Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King sculptures are we going to make? I think that those are olive branches that are extended to the Black community. And we kind of remixed the same song again and again. But we need new monuments that speak to contemporary issues.

A lot of us are looking at history and telling stories from history. But this time that we're living will be history. And it is as historic as anything else.

NH: How do you feel now that your work has taken on more monumental aspects?

MC: That's always been on that hierarchy of aspirations for me, now that the platform and the foundation is starting to solidify and people can see consistency of the works that I'm producing, there's less doubt, which means that there are less obstacles.

Most of those monumental works are all commissioned works where the partner, whoever that is, has a healthy amount of trust that I'll be able to execute. But I find that as I move into that space, a lot of it is dictated by the community and there’s often a lot of voices in the room.

But it's important for me that I have these opportunities. If I win an award and I have to do it the alternative way where the community comes in and they say what they want before I even have time to imagine what I might do, you know, then at this stage in my career, I'm willing to take it because it all helps me get to the place that I'm describing, that sweet spot. And I don't really complain about it, it's just one of the realities of making public work now.

I think we spent centuries just throwing up stuff and we see how that turned out. You know what I mean? It turned out with people tearing them down and spray painting them and damaging them and throwing them over bridges and all kinds of stuff. So, I understand why it's important.

Rainbow Box from MonstaTheEngineer on Vimeo.

A white gallery wall displays a larger-than-life lineup of figures with lighter skin tones, each wearing black shirts while a lineup of framed, smaller, life-sized photographs of figures with darker skin tones are hung overtop in a line closer to the floor.
Black Box and White Box (2022), installation view from American+ at Weston Art Gallery

A dark room with painted black walls shows a color photograph hung on the left side of a corner, and on the right, three silhouetted figures in all white that appear to be hanging by their necks from above the top of the wall. Cookout (2022), installation view

Cookout (2022), inkjet print on vinyl, installation view



Nathaniel Hendrickson is  an interdisciplinary artist, painter, curator, documentary filmmaker and freelance producer based in Casey County,  KY.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY