LaNia Sproles reclaims Black femme bodies in “Playing Fine For Now”

The Milwaukee-based artist’s show is up through September 18 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

The Milwaukee-based artist’s show is up through September 18 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Header image: In LaNia Sproles’ painting “Nakers Continental,” two figures share a meal that includes a fish and a severed head with an apple stuffed in its mouth.

In Playing Fine For Now, Milwaukee-based artist LaNia Sproles maps out pleasure, intimacy, and nostalgia in paintings and mixed-media work that revere Black femme bodies and their capacity for tenderness.

Sproles’ work, characterized by an aesthetic inclination toward highly decorative patterns, gaudy textures, and glaring color palettes, is on display at Arts + Literature Laboratory through September 18. (Gallery hours at ALL are Thursday through Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m. A closing reception will be held on Friday, September 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. Face masks and social distancing are required.)

Sproles reclaims the queer body through her art, which offers a poignant collage of all that makes up a human. Rooted in queer and feminist theory, anti-capitalist ideology, and critical race theory, this exhibit is an homage to liberation. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to not feel like a commodified version of myself,” Sproles says, “but I have to remind myself that I am in control of my body and my own feelings.”

Having graduated with a BFA from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2017, Sproles dabbles with printmaking, drawing, and collage. Her artmaking process has been primarily intuitive, radically cathartic, and deeply influenced by the works of feminists like Octavia Butler, Kara Walker, and Rebecca Morgan and pop culture icons like Megan Thee Stallion.

In a world where women of color are silenced by oppressive systems of power, Sproles creates space for BIPOC to entertain and welcome their desires, their pleasures, and the privileges of experiencing it being close in proximity to whiteness.

“The events of last year made me realize how much I hate capitalism,” Sproles admits. Her involvement in radical community work allows for her art to be grounded in the sobering reality of her surroundings.

Through the act of archiving her truth, Sproles is able to make space for joy, both for herself and for those who she loves most. The manner in which she reconfigures the Black femme body is utterly revolutionary and this all stems from her commitment to an autobiographical honesty.

By exploring space, Sproles navigates the psychogeography of home and memory, showing how the past haunts the present in the ways it occupies dreamscapes. “I treat my work as a diary. Its intent is to document my perception as vulnerably as possible,” Sproles says, “The people that I love have really influenced my art.”

Sproles populates her art with familiar things she grew up with in her neighborhood, allowing viewers to experience the artist’s consciousness by our groundedness in place. Among these icons are a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and a green Waste Management dumpster. An obsession with the theatrical demonstrates Sproles’ predisposition to the queer aesthetic, not as a mode of exoticization, but one of veneration. The bold color choices and wild outfits are stylistically campy and yet, still superbly familiar for queer folks.

“Superstar” by LaNia Sproles.

“Superstar” by LaNia Sproles.

The intimate settings to which the artist gives life serve as sites for vulnerability, showing how people can find strength in softness when they can fully be themselves without fear. Sproles has been intentional in preserving Blackness and preserving safety.

“Nakers Continental” is a gouache portrait of community and camaraderie, as two friends come to the table for a meal. The foreground is a feast, inspired by a home-cooked smoked salmon from scratch shared between the artist and best friend, Ariana Vaeth, at a dinner party in 2019—a year before COVID-19 shut down the world and deprived most people of closeness.

Luscious plants decorate the backdrop, serving as a symbol for care, growth, and nourishment within the confines of a home. Amidst it all, the two partake while gazing into the viewer, taking portions of the decapitated head of a rich white man biting down on an apple. The juxtaposition of the various elements on the plane shows how the diametrically opposing characters speak to one another, forming a conversation on the coexistence of gore and frailty.

LaNia Sproles’ painting “Bussy Fountain” depicts a marble fountain populated by queer figures.

LaNia Sproles’ painting “Bussy Fountain” depicts a marble fountain populated by queer figures.

“Bussy Fountain” immortalizes queer joy through the provocative display of gay males’ bodies. These ethereal beings luxuriate in a historical fountain built from stone. Fountains, which are often associated with youth, cleansing, and opulence, have never been historically known to enshrine black and brown queer people. Monuments have been used to glorify whiteness. “Why does public art honor someone who doesn’t deserve to be honored?” Sproles asks. Her answer is to use images of queer people of color partying as references for the marbled figures.

Other works in the show include a portrait of the artist’s sister and a chihuahua enjoying each other’s company in a fantasy tea party, an 8-foot tall portrait of the artist’s friend that emphasizes how important it is to take up space as a Black body, and various celebrations of the stories of people close to Sproles.

Playing Fine For Now is an ostentatious memorialization of a Black femme woman who refuses to be subjected to a gaze that has long been used for nothing but violence. With courage, Sproles finds freedom in the gospel of truth.

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