If you go to Google and search ‘Envy of the World,’ the top 8 results – from top to bottom – are about or by Ellis Cose. The results include his book, a best seller, “The Envy of the World – on Being a Black Man in America,” and the book’s website. There is an article titled “America’s Richest Congressman: Our Poor Are the “Envy of the World.” The final entry on the site is photographer Dex R. Jones’ art exhibition titled, you guessed it, “THE ENVY OF THE WORLD.”
While Dex’s exhibition “Coloreds Only” was growing, the “Envy of the World” image was born while working with model, Destiny Owusu, also known as Ohwawa. “THE ENVY OF THE WORLD” image is also known as “the black girl with the pearl.” This piece is an infrared box with Ohwawa’s face in the center. The expression on her face says, “Take it or leave it! I’m here.”
According to Jones on his website,
“The “Envy” image is literally a highly sought-after beautifully melanated dismembered head surrounded by a loud inescapably hot and tension-building aura. We are their Envy – and because of that deadly sin, we have been stripped and broken down to bare minimums. Left utterly confused and disoriented because we have a great sense of our own self-worth but cannot reconcile our current living situations. This is what they do when they want something so desperately that they cannot have. But we have it. So even still we radiate in any and every hostile environment they try to put us in. We are the Envy of the World.”
“Coloreds Only” was shot in the basement of his mother’s house, but now he has a new ‘outdoor studio’ in Brooklyn, also known as all of Canarsie Park. This is where I met with Dex to learn more about his world and what he plans to do next.
As we began to walk around the park, Jones mentioned that this is the season he receives blessings. The spring and summer was ‘a hell of a grind,’ but winter is hibernating time. Before deciding to have subjects and models meet him in Carnarsie Park, Dex was constantly searching for locations that would look cool to people. His exact words, as a response to anyone who wanted to shoot elsewhere, were, “I know it’s in Canarsie and it’s not poppin’ but, if you want to shoot with me this is where you need to be.”
For Dex, shooting in the park is a type of fantastical dream. It is his hope that Canarsie is seen as a marker of his work just as Brooklyn is seen as a marker of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.”
I asked to shoot Dex in specific locations in and out of the park. The first was the seat that he sat in to talk to his mother about narrating the beginning of his video for “THE COLOREDS ONLY [SHORT]” and two spots in the park where he shot different models.
All in all, Dex wants his work to become instrumental through his choice in setting, so people will look at Brooklyn with another eye. Through his constant effort to let his voice be heard through his creations and with the support of TunnelVision, an artist collective based in Brooklyn, he’s making people pay attention to what he has to say.
What is “Envy of the World”?
“Envy of the World”, I suppose, has become my crown jewel. Of all my work it will probably be the piece of work I will be most remembered for, just for how simple yet striking it is. It’s one of the pieces I have created that has a clearly defined message in my mind – that we as people of color are an absolute beauty, and that beauty unfortunately has, historically speaking, come with a price.
Why did you ask your mother to narrate the first part of the “Coloreds Only” video that was made with TunnelVision?
My original idea for the video was not to have anyone narrate it, including my mother. The first day we shot scenes for the video, we actually didn’t have any clear ideas at all as to what we were going to do. Then my friend suggested that we incorporate other people’s voices in the film, specifically those that were close to the project and me. Later, Stephen from TunnelVision, who has vastly more experience with making films than I do, told me to write the script and go from there. We especially loved the idea of having my mother be a part of it. All of the work that was created for Coloreds Only could not have been made without my mother’s blessing. She let me use her space to create all of that work, so her voice was definitely necessary in communicating to my audience the significance of the project to me.
In your description of the Envy of the World image, you use the phrase, “Radiate in any and every hostile environment” – what does this mean to you? Please give an example that correlates with the exhibition.
Radiating in a hostile environment simply means that we continue to shine regardless of how much society tries to dim our light. “Envy of the World” radiates all by itself. Originally to further that idea, I planned to have “Coloreds Only” exhibited in an “upscale gallery” which would ultimately mean that white people would be forced to see it. I wanted to put the “Coloreds Only” section in a white neighborhood to show how much we continue to radiate there. But the show is still a work in progress, and we’re still working on raising money to produce it. By the time that happens, I may get a sign that leads me to take the show in another direction. We shall see.
Did you get inspiration from Ellis Cose’s book “The Envy of the World – on Being a Black Man in America”?
No, I didn’t. I actually thought to Google that title months after I made and titled the piece because, for whatever reason, it just didn’t feel like a brand new or unheard-of idea. That’s when I saw that the book existed. I need to buy a copy and read it.
What does the artist collective TunnelVision mean to you?
We at TunnelVision are a collective of really talented artists who have been doing the work for some years, and who quite literally find ourselves operating on the same frequency, both mentally and spiritually. We are ready to make a significant impact that goes deeper than creating. After doing something for a number of years, there comes a moment when you say to yourself, “now is the time”. It’s good to not be alone in that. It is always good when many things become one with one clear goal. The universe has been heavily working with us since we came together.
How does your life progress?
My life always consistently progresses spiritually. Every year, the universe makes a point to teach me something about myself and what I’m capable of. I gain things and lose things. It all makes me more accepting of things to come and more durable in dealing with things that go. Things always come in and out. I had lost a relationship and a job when I gained my studio. I needed the studio at that time to reveal to myself all the things I could do creatively. The following year, I had lost a job, a relationship, and my studio, when I gained TunnelVision. I realized that I needed TunnelVision at that point because I had become so accustomed to working by myself. It was now time for me to learn to reach outside of myself and become accustomed to working together. Just being aware of the shifting tides allows me to appreciate the balance in all things that life has to offer.
What is your overall message as an artist?
I want those who don’t see, to see. I want them to see self. I want them to see the true spiritual beauty in themselves. I want my audience to know and understand their direct connection to God, and that they can be God if they see the power in themselves. God as in the Infinite and the Creator. That we can create our realities. But we cannot do anything if we feel powerless. So my work is intended to make the powerless become powerful and the powerful become responsible. Art and living by example are my small contributions to creating some kind of spiritual and world balance.
What were some of the reasons people came to you for the Colored photos?
Most notably, I was approached to do the colorful work for head wrap brands like The Wrap Life and 1953. After working on those campaigns, I think that’s when my color work began to go viral.
What is the art project Solange Knowles was a part of that inspired you to do that with your own spin?
When I saw the work that Solange did with Puma, I, like everyone else, thought that it was really dope work. But often times, I think the everyday consumer looks at ads or campaigns and distances themselves from them. They say or feel things like, “look at the great work Puma did, or Nike, or H&M.” And that’s where it ends for most people. I looked at the work she did with Puma and thought that could easily be us. The main ingredient was color. I figured, “I have a studio. I could just get some color backdrops and see what I come up with.” But really the inspiration I got from Solange was simply that I could inspire other artists around me. I really just wanted to show us that you don’t have to be a large corporation or ad agency to create excellent work. But first, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I was really just experimenting to see what I was capable of doing with my own spin or perspective, and limited resources. Keep in mind that I never had any real prior studio knowledge before that point so it was all a learning process. I never intended for it to become something that people would know me for.
How do you experience your own craft?
I approach my craft with spontaneous inspiration from the beginning of the creative process to the very end. While I’m shooting, I try to leave as much room as possible for the unplanned elements to take place. I don’t shoot with very much righteous artistic intention. I’m just creating. I truly see my work for the first time when I’m about to edit it. The image speaks to me and tells me what needs to be done to make the shoot the best it can be. Once the editing process is over and the final image is complete, that’s when I kind of have to step outside myself and be inspired by my own work – almost as if I didn’t create it. I become the audience, or at least I try to. I have to ask myself, what is the image communicating to me? Whatever answer I get is the answer that informs the intention behind the work. That’s essentially what happened with the “Envy” image. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to create – even as I was creating it. But when I was done, I stared at it, and it stared back at me, and it said, “I Am the Envy of the World”. And so it is.
When is your next exhibition?
“Coloreds Only” is still a work in progress. There are other pieces on the board that TunnelVision is working on that require some attention right now. But the main focus for the show right now is still raising money to produce it. Once we have the money we can make bigger strides to making the show happen. A limited edition of Envy of the World is available on canvas at envyoftheworld.com for new and veteran art collectors. There are also books and t-shirts for sale, and you can make donations as well. After “Coloreds Only”, I want to get started on producing another show that I had in mind to make before I even thought of “Coloreds Only” called “Heaven at Night”. I won’t say much more on that. But “Heaven at Night” cannot make its way here until “Coloreds Only” is completed and seen the way it’s meant to. I guess you can say “Heaven at Night” is the sequel.