TObout a year and a half ago, the artist Derek Fordjour picked up a copy of Black Herman’s Secrets Of Magic, Mystery and Legerdemain, a highly fictionalized memoir by the most esteemed Black magician of the early 20th century. “I’m not sure I believed his claims of him,” Fordjour tells the Guardian, recounting the magician’s improbable tales of traveling the world and outrunning bandits. Black Herman, he had concluded, was not really a good guy: “In my mind, he was a hustler” who convinced Black audiences during the Great Depression that they could cure all with his magic potions from him, and escape mortal peril by learning his tricks of him. Despite Black Herman’s grift, however, his success continued to fascinate Fordjour, who had never heard of any other Black magicians.
Fordjour’s latest show, Magic, Mystery & Legerdemain, on view at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles through 7 May, looks back at the history of magic as an elaborate cultural metaphor. “Magicians are people we give permission to deceive us publicly,” he says, unsurprised that in the public imagination, they’re nearly always white. Even pop culture’s current fascination with Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Sorokin – whose claims to fame are their respective abilities to make money appear out of thin air – “further demonstrate how privilege functions”, Fordjour adds, wondering aloud whether any grifter women of color had ever risen to such acclaim. “The more I thought about magic, the more I saw it as a really rich space to talk about privilege, power, deception and strategy.”
In the spirit of Black Herman, Fordjour’s exhibition leans into high-key drama: visitors enter the gallery through a pair of opaque curtains, then proceed down a small tunnel lit by an ornate chandelier. If you come early, you’ll be greeted by a mysterious woman in showgirl drag, who later stars in the live magic show that takes place Tuesdays through Saturdays at 2pm. In a pointedly kitsch production co-written by Fordjour and the artist Numa Perrier, actor Nubia Bowe plays the assistant to Black Herman, who’s played by Kenrick “Ice” McDonald, magic historian and first Black president of the Society of American Magicians.
In contrast to the magic show’s fully constructed vaudevillian stage, velvet curtains, tassels and all, Fordjour’s paintings and sculpture inhabit the more familiar space of the white cube gallery. Each work of art functions as a mini historical lesson, organized to play out in a kind of ballad.
“There are chorus paintings and verse paintings,” Fordjour explains, where chorus paintings depict “actual magic, and specific magicians that lived.” Float, a painting of man in matching magenta turban and bowtie passing a hoop over a levitating woman, is of real-life husband-and-wife duo Goldfinger and Dove, who came up in Hollywood’s magic circles in the late 1960s. “I was interested in painting Goldfinger largely because of the headdress,” the artist says, alluding to the historical practice of Black magicians, barred from white stages, frequently playing the part of more “mystical” ethnicities.
Where the chorus paintings represent “your more classically understood magicians”, Fordjour’s “verse” paintings present magic in a very different context. They portray figures like Fannie Davis, a stay-at-home mom who successfully ran an illegal gambling racket in Detroit in the 1960s. Her magic trick, according to Fordjour, was building generational wealth for her children during a period when Black families were routinely denied mortgages. There’s also a painting of Henry Box Brown, whose escape act from slavery involved mailing himself in a box to the free state of Pennsylvania. And Meu Povo, the largest painting in the show, depicts a carnival scene in modern-day Brazil that had felt so much to Ghanaian-American Fordjour like Africa. “These people were summoning a place that they had never been.”
In both verse and chorus, the fractured surface of Fordjour’s paintings have the texture of peeling rust, or wet earth that hardens and cracks as it dries. It’s an effect he achieves in the studio by layering his canvas with tiles of corrugated cardboard wrapped in newspaper, painted, wrapped in more newspaper, and painted again. “There are 12 or 13 steps before I start a painting,” he explains, at which point he lays down his colorful imagery in acrylic, charcoal and oil pastel. Then, “there’s this life underneath that I can access by cutting away”. His digging an X-Acto knife into certain points on the surface creates moments of depth, and small explosions of color.
During Fordjour’s daily magic shows, Black Herman and his assistant’s disappearing acts and switcheroos are punctuated by the magician’s operatic refrain. “But first you must believe!” McDonald belts intermittently, to the live, gospel-inflected organ music.
“Magic is not real,” Fordjour insists, which is what makes Black Herman’s promises so egregious, but this show tacitly emphasizes the importance of believing anyway. The chorus and verse split magic into two different types, where the former is an untrustworthy game of spectacle, performativity and deceit. The latter, however, concerns the magic of human triumph – making something out of nothing, surviving impossible odds, or surpassing your own wildest dreams. This second kind rings loud and clear in Birth of Showtime, Fordjour’s most quintessentially LA painting. It’s a sentimental rendering of a young Magic Johnson reaching out to an orange tree with a visible sense of wonder, based on the basketball legend’s own story of arriving in LA for the first time. “He didn’t believe the oranges were real, so he asked his driver to pull over so he could actually touch one,” Fordjour recounts. “That moment for me felt very painterly, like the start of something.” What followed was the NBA’s transformation into a cultural institution so unprecedented that Earvin Johnson was no longer a fitting name; from then on, he was just known as Magic.