Close Look: Christina Coleman
Updated: Oct 10
University of Texas art history PhD student Nicole Smythe-Johnson offers another insightful essay for our ongoing series, 'Close Look.' In this latest exploration we examine the work of Austin-based artist, and University of Texas alum, Christina Coleman. Traditionally known for her works which explore the material culture of Black hair, here the artist probes the mysteries and myths of creation, through abstraction. As Smythe-Johnson aptly states, this work "... puts blackness into conversation with creation in more ways than one."
The works of art featured in Close Look are found in some of our favorite private-collections—providing a rare opportunity to peak at some of the collectors who inspire us, while taking a closer look…
Firmament, Christina Coleman, 2014. Graphite, compressed charcoal, 27 x 25 inches.
© Christina Coleman. Image courtesy of private collection.
On Blackness and Creation: Christina Coleman’s Firmament
By Nicole Smythe-Johnson
In this installment of Close Look, we’re shifting gears toward an artist invested in abstraction as a creative mode capable of generating multiple meanings. In Firmament (2014), Austin-based artist Christina Coleman presents a deceptively simple image whose multiple layers of meaning give insight into blackness as material and social identity, and creation in the cosmological and artistic senses.
The graphite and charcoal drawing comprises two charcoal bands across the top and bottom of the drawing, separated by a band of graphite grey. The charcoal bands are a flat, even black with jagged, irregular edges that reach toward and recede from each other, shaping the intervening band of light grey graphite. Toward the center of the drawing, the lines between the black and grey are sharpest, defining three discrete bands. The shading of the center band is a subtle gradient that takes us from one darkened edge through a lighter center and back, suggesting a focal point, or a dome or arch being viewed through a crack. At the darkened edges, the lines between the bands blur and the charcoal seems to bleed into the graphite, further suggesting the experience of looking— a center in sharp focus with edges blurred in peripheral vision.
"...multiple layers of meaning give insight into blackness as material and social identity, and creation in the cosmological and artistic senses."
Firmament is part of a series of six drawings that explore the Bible’s creation story as detailed in the book of Genesis. The work’s title is a reference to Biblical cosmology, which imagines the earthly realm separated from the heavenly realm by a dome called the firmament, a rounded container that sits atop the earth and to which the stars are fastened. Chapter one of the book of Genesis describes the firmament:
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas: and God saw that it was good.
The passage is distinctly visual and has spawned multiple representations of the firmament in artwork, most famously in a wood engraving by an unknown artist that appeared in French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion's L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). Notably, African-American poet James Weldon Johnson was also inspired by this passage in his poem “The Creation,” published in 1927’s God’s Trombones. That collection was accompanied by illustrations by Aaron Douglas. Coleman was also attracted to the story’s visuality, noting that she “was drawn to [Genesis’ creation] story because it breaks things down to literally black and white, and it’s very graphic the way it’s told.”
Her rendering of the myth is distinct, however. In Coleman’s abstracted drawing we do not see the firmament in cross section as we do in the engraving, rather we seem to be looking up at the firmament through a crack or opening. Perhaps from the perspective of dry land emerging from the seas? But the jagged edges of the charcoal bands do not suggest the flow of water, they are more like rock. It is as though the viewer is lying at the bottom of a cavern looking up and out at the firmament, or heavens, brightest at its apex.
"It became important for me to think about the spaces black people exist in, to make these drawings about the beginning of things."
Other associations emerge when we consider Firmament within the context of Coleman’s broader practice, which includes an enchanting series of abstract paintings on paper and canvas made from hair gels commonly used by black women, ceramic sculptures based on hair picks and combs, and another series of sculptures made from synthetic hair. The drawings might seem a departure from Coleman’s broader practice, which deploys symbols associated with the black body, stretching and interrogating their meanings through a process of abstraction. In an essay about Coleman’s practice, Lilia Rocio Taboada, a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin’s Masters in art history program, suggests that Coleman’s practice is a process of “world-building.” Taboada argues that Firmament presents “a multivalent portal to another world,” and further that Coleman’s work creates “a cosmic place in which body and place are collapsed and exist as one.” In earlier work like 2012’s Untitled (Eco Styler, African Essence, Softee, Ampro Styl) where brands of hair gel commonly used by black women become the medium for earth-toned paintings simultaneously reminiscent of skin and aerial views of desert landscapes, or Arch (2012) where synthetic hair forms an arch large enough to walk-through, the link between the body and place is clear. The artworks transmute materials associated with the black body into places— a desert, or a portal to move through. I would argue that Firmament also navigates between the body and place, but in a different way.
The artist, who identifies as black, queer and Christian, has said of the series and her use of the Bible as source material: "It became important for me to think about the spaces black people exist in, to make these drawings about the beginning of things. To have an association between me as a black person and the beginning of time. To say that we’re in that space, too, and that we’ve been in these things since the creation." 
I have noted that the experience of looking at Firmament is one of looking out at the sky through a crack or tear of some kind, looking out from within. Coleman’s words— “the spaces Black people exist in,” “we’re in that space too,” and “we’ve been in these things”— strengthen my sense that this work represents a looking out from within blackness; the literal blackness of the charcoal, the viewer’s position within the dark insides of the earth looking out at creation unfolding, and finally from within the experience of racial Blackness, an experience indexed most strongly through the body. The drawing can also be read as a rendering of the artist’s own creative perspective, since the experience of Blackness is also the place from which Coleman creates. In a 2015 interview with Amethyst Beaver for the Blanton Museum of Art’s blog, Coleman said, “My work is always in some way about my experience, identity, and perspective as a Black woman.” She has also noted the significance of the “rich Black community” she found during her MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, and the mentorship of Black faculty like Dr. Cherise Smith and artist and former UT faculty member Michael Ray Charles.
In this way, Coleman’s abstraction of the Biblical story of creation in this subtle and mysterious work puts blackness into conversation with creation in more ways than one.
 Gen. 1:6-10 King James Version.  Sam Anderson-Ramos, “Christina Coleman at West 2017,” The Austin Chronicle, 12 May 2017. Online.
 Lilia Rocio Taboada, “Christina Coleman: Material Worlds” in Collecting Black Studies: The Art of Material Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, edited by Lise Ragbir and Cherise Smith, Art Galleries at Black Studies/The University of Texas Press: Austin, 2020.  Sam Anderson-Ramos, “Christina Coleman at West 2017,” The Austin Chronicle, 12 May 2017. Online.  Amethyst Beaver, “A Conversation with Christina Coleman,” The Blanton Museum of Art blog, 24 March 2015. Online.  Sam Anderson-Ramos, “Christina Coleman at West 2017,” The Austin Chronicle, 12 May 2017. Online.