The artist known as Pleasant

“If I had to choose between the two, I would rather have no money and be true to my art than be rich and produce bullshit.” -- Pleasant

The past two years have seen installations of work by the Savannah-born artist known as Pleasant spread widely across the globe.

Acclaim led to greater and greater acclaim with his “Public Installation of Thought Paintings” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2004), his “Suspended Thoughts” exhibitions at the Dust Gallery in London and the Varga in Woodstock, N.Y. (2004). Much more followed with exhibits at the Alexander Platz in Berlin and the Octava Gallery in Sweden (2005).

Why so much glamorous fuss and fury over an artist just exiting his twenties and entering his thirties? It is largely because Pleasant -- first name Jalal -- is something of a rarity among fine visual artists.

Rather than restricting himself to competently producing beautiful or shocking images that earn appropriate applause, his is the sensibility of an experimental conceptualist that helps to redefine and advance the way people engage art.

His bold “Suspended Thoughts” series with its mutable structure and transparent framework is only one example of this specific gift. Just as he uses invented form to challenge the methodologies of his craft, he also employs psychoanalysis as a tool in his art to make daring, sometimes even disturbing, statements regarding the modern human condition.

The seriousness of Pleasant’s intent becomes immediately apparent when viewing the psychically charged expressionistic figures of his “Fire Series” or his west-Savannah inspired “Fellwood Series.”

The in-your-face statements made through the art are generally punctuated further with such provocative titles as: “The Bitter Shame of Men Who Have Been Raped;” “The Nobody;” “The Day That a Black Man Cried;” and “The Monster Who Chases Me,” among many others.

Pleasant’s achievement would appear to be one virtually encoded into his DNA. Take, for example, the fact that his paternal grandfather was William Pleasant Jr., an artist who painted many of the signs that adorned the businesses in Savannah’s City Market and down on River Street.

(Editor’s Note: William Pleasant is also the name of the artist’s brother, known for his local G-8 activism.)

Moreover, his maternal grandfather was David Carter, a sculptor who once held the distinction of exhibiting rattan furniture in the Smithsonian Institute and whose miniature figures carved from coconuts won him the name “Coconut Carter.”

Then further consider that Pleasant’s late father was William Pleasant III, whose paintings of life in Savannah during the latter half of the twentieth century now hang in the Telfair Museum and various collections around the country. Add to that rich legacy of creative vision a penchant for scientific inquiry inherited from his mother, the former educator Sadie Carter Pleasant, and the artist’s destiny would indeed seem inevitable.

Ironically, Pleasant’s current status as a rising star of the international art scene resulted from the fact that he experienced repeated difficulty finding exhibition spaces for his work in the United States. That he had attended New York’s famed School of Visual Arts, studied with such noted artists as Julian Schnabel, Martha Diamond, and Michael Goldberg, seemed to make no difference.

Neither did finding a champion in the form of Austrian art curator Stefan Eins of Fashion Moda fame. Doors of opportunity refused to open for the young artist.

Was the issue a matter of racism, cultural politics, personal vendettas, or the normal challenges of a young artist struggling for recognition? Rather than waiting to find out, Pleasant created his own opportunity by submitting work for 2002’s Wrong Exhibition in London and ended up placing himself on the right track to success.

Since the death of this father in 1997, the artist has spent very little time in his hometown. However, he recently returned to Savannah both to prepare work for upcoming exhibits overseas and to explore the possibility of working with Stefan Eins on a project aimed at documenting the work and lives of local artists.

His own very ambitious work in progress, entitled “Chases Me,” is one that has already begun to stir controversy for its examination of sensitive issues. The artist recently took a break from work in his west Savannah studio to talk with Connect Savannah.

Connect Savannah: You’ve described your art as socially conscious, introspective, progressive, and intelligent. What place does the concept or reality of love occupy in your creative aesthetics?

Pleasant: There was a point in my life when I didn’t believe that love existed. I still have issues with the idea of love. I love my art. I love people who influence me. I love those people close to me. The type of love I try to place in my work is a love for humanity, a love for human beings in that I [seek to] represent all human beings in my work. And I try to engage the human experience in an effort to help people better understand themselves, to face their greatest fears. I try to help them come closer together with their feelings as opposed to the opposite, which is so popular these days. Crying is not weakness. And delving into oneself is not weakness either. Only through looking into ourselves do we find strength.

Connect Savannah: Along those same lines, you’ve also described your work as an art of analysis. What would you say are some of the more important things you’ve discovered during the course of this analysis through art?

Pleasant: I’ve discovered in myself a different understanding of the world. My perspective is always changing on the world and my art helps to sort of influence that. Even though I create the art, I’m also an observer of it. Sometimes I don’t see the things that other people see in it. Sometimes I look at it and I don’t know where some of the things in it come from. I’m not always consciously aware when doing my artwork. I lose all track of time and enter a sort of inner time within myself. Sometimes, though it might sound weird, I feel that I’m sort of translating a vision that’s coming through me but that is from someplace else. And once I’ve completed rendering it, I see things in it that I didn’t quite visualize originally. It always evolves into something quite unique and different from what I originally planned. I like to document the human moment. I like to document the human self and self discovery. My analysis is an analysis of self, an introspective analysis. I also do observations of people in my travels. And I note how people react to things, their perspectives on themselves, and life, and art. I draw conclusions from my observations and those conclusions end up as paintings.

Connect Savannah: Can you give me an example of an analytical observation that later became a work of art of some kind?

Pleasant: I did one controversial painting called “The Man Who Was Labeled Sexist.” It was based upon an individual that I knew, who was called sexist because of certain comments he made about women. However, the comments stemmed from his own personal background, which included female abuse against him. So I did a painting based on my analysis of him. The painting was a conclusion in which I sort of depict him as being attacked from outside by these figures. And he’s sort of being covered by this liquid or material that’s like preventing him from moving. He’s like in this awkward sort of stance where it looks as if he’s unable to really move but he’s also trying to protect himself. And the needles are sort of sticking him. But he’s still a human being. And he still has feelings. There’s a lot of I could say about that painting, but it’s a very interesting one I did that was directly based on my analysis of someone I knew.

Connect Savannah: Even though you didn’t get to know them while you were growing up, both of your grandfathers, David Carter and William Pleasant Jr., were artists. Your grandfather William Pleasant’s legacy to city of Savannah is an enduring one in the form of signs that still hang outside some buildings in the downtown area. What would you say is his legacy to you as an artist and individual?

Pleasant: One of the greatest things that strike me about my grandfather is just the fact that he was an artist. And that he endured a lot of the discrimination and stuff of that era [the mid 1900s] to survive and be able to pass on his knowledge to his son, in the arts, who then passed it on to me. It was his influence that led my father to take up the visual arts and that enable me to do the things I do today.

Connect Savannah: Although there were many trained black artists in the North during the mid-1900s, it was rare to hear about a black artist in the South who traveled north to formally study art and then returned to the South. But your father did exactly that, studying at Delaware State College of Dover, the Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and York College of York, Penn. Now that his works hang all over the country, do you ever feel like you’re competing with him as an artist?

Pleasant: Oh no, I feel like I’m an extension of him. I feel that I’m continuing the legacy that he began. One of the things he told me before he died to was to go abroad and to push my work wherever I could. He warned me that I could get blackballed and rejected. He said, “Take the world as your platter. And just keep on. You have an opportunity to things I never had in this life.”

Connect Savannah: What about his life and legacy makes you most proud?

Pleasant: He painted in his own particular style and didn’t try to conform himself to what other people wanted. He was also able to reflect his own identity as well as the African American and American experience within his work. He told me if I didn’t follow my own path that I would indeed be an artist but that I wouldn’t be as significant as I could be. He said I would then be emulating as opposed to being progressive. Progression within the arts lies within experimenting and creating new ways of rendering things and processes. Even if it doesn’t catch on, even if I’m dead and it doesn’t catch on, one day it will. And that takes the world forward.

Connect Savannah: Speaking of progression in your art, the work you’re doing now is an ambitious project called “Chases Me.” This seems to be following a theme you established in earlier work.

Pleasant: I did a painting titled “The Monster Who Chases Me.” In some ways it kind’a looks like a stereotypical sort of “Sambo” type face. A cartoony face. However, this has a lot to do with some of my experiences in the art world and stuff. I feel that no matter what I say or do, I present myself and my art in a very sophisticated way. But “The Monster Who Chases Me” is that face that represents some people’s perspective on who or what I’m supposed to be. And it always chases me. I try to keep ahead of the monster that chases me because he’s not really me. He was made by somebody else.

Connect Savannah: So the monster that chases you is really misperception?

Pleasant: Right, and that face is always put in front of mine. And I try to stay one step ahead of him, try to outrun him every day, but the monster that chases me is always following me, always trying to track me down, and I elude him many times. Sometimes he does catch me. The painting is the basis for one of my next upcoming projects, and which will be one of my most powerful pieces. I’ve shown details from it to a few people and it’s already considered controversial.

Connect Savannah: Controversy follows your work, from responses to you doing things like endowing male sculptures with visible genitalia, placing President Bush’s face on an English pound note and the image of a Muslim woman in the painting “The Day I Saw Through the Deported Woman’s Eyes.” Some would be apprehensive about this new work.

Pleasant: It’s time for me to evolve with my art, and this thing definitely represents the next step for me. It pushes moreso the conceptual aspects of my work. It integrates it full-on into my sculpture and my paintings. It’s a combination of all those things combined and fused together, to literally make a three-dimensional painting in my style that is conceptual but at the same time just as in depth as “FIRE” and all those other paintings. And it’s socially conscious, it makes sociopolitical comments; however, at the same time it fulfills that category for commercial art, and pop art, and that kind of stuff. So it’s about contradictions sort of coexisting together in the same space but being one. It’s heavy, man.

Aberjhani is co-author of the award-winning Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry. To comment in a letter to the editor, e-mail us at

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