Water inspires and fills the cheerful paintings of Milwaukee Native Khari Turner

Khari Turner (born 1991) has been drawn to the water since he was a young boy growing up in Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan. Turner has found a unique way to continue this connection by incorporating water from lakes, rivers and oceans with personal associations or connections to Black history into his contemporary figurative paintings.

To reflect the composition of the human body, he mixes colors that are almost 60% water. He also uses his found water as a “primer” that he applies to canvas before painting.

Through July 10, 2022, the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, Wisconsin is presenting Turner’s first solo exhibition at the museum in his home state, Mirroring Reflection, which features his work in a gallery overlooking the Milwaukee River, a source the Artist has drawn water for use in paintings featured in the exhibition.

“Water has always been dominant in terms of thought spaces and spaces where I could really ask myself what I want to do with my life, how I want to move forward; or if I was down, I’d just sit by the water,” Turner told Forbes.com.

The show features 26 of his water-soaked works.

“It was always so calming,” he recalls growing up around water, adding with a chuckle, “and then I was jumping over rocks all the time.”

“Water does all the heavy lifting”

Highly symbolic, Turner’s paintings combine abstract and realistic depictions of black figures to emphasize his ancestors’ spiritual and physical relationship with water. Any discussion of black life and history in America where it relates to water must trace its roots back to the transatlantic slave trade. Turner approaches this reality from a different perspective.

“I used to try to make art about this trauma, but (I thought) it’s not helpful to people who are already looking at this work and knowing about it,” Turner said.

Instead of deepening the point and reproducing the fear expressed by countless other artists, he found a different way to use the water.

“It helps me to work with this material because I can deal with having all this information, all the atrocities of slavery and also all the ideas around migration and travel, but I don’t have to do it in pictures that shows that They know where these materials came from because the material already does,” Turner explains.

The bodies of black ancestors thrown overboard between Africa and America decomposed in the water. They became one with it. A portion of them return through Turner’s painting when he draws water from the ocean.

The material adequately tells this terrible story.

“Then I’m allowed to create images of happiness and joy, but never anything to do with the trauma of that water,” Turner said. “The water does all the heavy lifting. It gives me the freedom as an artist to create images that say I know this story exists, but I choose to live with it in a way that I can still talk about joy.”

This reveals a more authentic self.

“It felt a lot more personal and it was a better message if I could (take the water) and apply it to (joy) — we’ll still ride bikes, we’ll still go to the park, we always do.” still have fun,” Turner said, referring to images from his paintings. “(Water trauma) is part of history and you should know that is part of history, but I’m not going to stop being an artist. I’m going to be here doing what I want to do and I want to be able to create joy even though I know that story.”

Success on the global stage

Mirroring Reflection follows Turner’s international solo debut at the 2022 Venice Biennale last spring, where a presentation of his paintings runs at Palazzo Bembo until November to coincide with the ongoing Super Bowl of contemporary art.

He spent the month of May in Stockholm, Sweden preparing an exhibition of entirely new work for this summer’s show.

After a stint in Venice, CA during the pandemic, with a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University, the increasingly global artist, now based in Brooklyn, is undoubtedly on the verge of a major career breakthrough.

Despite this international success, Turner considers the MOWA show to be an early career highlight.

“The people who really influenced my work or who grew up with me watched this show,” he said. “My high school art teacher came to this show and people I’ve worked with, so it’s really an amazing moment. Venice is great and hopefully one day I’ll get my own pavilion to represent the United States, but it was definitely different to be able to give back to my community, to make artworks and to display them (hoping) that this ( visitor) because a lot of these images are based on how I grew up (in Milwaukee)—kids on bikes, going to the pool, sitting in class.”

For additional insight into Turner’s development as a person and artist, he recommends a visit to Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, a community just north of downtown Milwaukee and less than an hour’s drive from MOWA.

“It’s the best park I’ve ever been to, and it’s where I’ve really taken a lot of motivation and water from using Lake Michigan water for my work,” Turner said. “This park is laid out where you can see Lake Michigan, but the land around it curves on either side so you don’t see the city, and it’s mostly trees, and when you look in, that’s how it feels as if you were looking at the sea.”

Glimpse into a painting by Khari Turner.

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