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  • Esteban Jefferson: Race, identity and why museums are in crisis


Esteban Jefferson: Race, identity and why museums are in crisis

Painter Esteban Jefferson, whose exhibition 'On Value' is currently on show at Tanya Leighton Gallery, wants you to appreciate the art of incompletion.

Photo: Dean Majd

Up-and-coming American painter Esteban Jefferson intentionally leaves his work unfinished to alter our ways of perception. His work centres around race, identity and power structures. Ahead of his current exhibition On Value at Tanya Leighton Gallery, we talked to Jefferson about the Parthenon Marbles and working right to the wire.

Please tell us about your latest show!

I’ve made a series of paintings, a sculpture, and a sound work that’s inspired by an antique heat vent from the Petit Palais in Paris. You don’t really see that it’s a speaker and out of it come the sounds of a museum lobby: squeaking sneakers on marble and security guards talking. We so often think of museums as being peaceful places but actually they’re hectic, especially the British Museum, which is one of the focuses of the show.

Why the British Museum?

I did a show in London last year, and I’ve been visiting the British Museum a lot over the past few years, shooting photos of different artefacts and how they’re shown in the museum. I got really intrigued by the Parthenon [Elgin] Marbles that were stolen by the British, and I’m really interested in Greece’s fight to get them back.

The British would argue that they bought them legally from the occupying Ottoman Empire…

You can use whatever word you want. But I know, from the Greek perspective, that this is their property. The British Museum was funding expeditions for people to go and loot and bring it back to England.

Exhibition view of On Value. Photo: © Tanya Leighton

Do you think the very model of a historical museum showing artefacts from other cultures is out of date?

I love museums. When I was growing up, I loved going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and seeing stuff from all over the world. It’s a really important experience. But it was a trip to Greece that really changed my thinking. I went to the Acropolis Museum, where they’ve left these empty spaces where the missing marbles should be. After that, to then go to England and actually see the fragments put it all into perspective. We’re getting so little of the whole story, we’re just seeing them as aesthetic objects.

The whole painting is just context for this one element that I think is really worth paying attention to.

Is the debate well-known in the US?

The Parthenon Marbles are talked about all the time, at least in New York. But there’s so much other stuff in the British Museum that’s treated super crappy, too. My paintings are actually about these Assyrian wall fragments from Iraq that are in the small hallways of the museum. And these fragments really were stolen.

They’re kept in a very tight and stale place because the museum clearly has ventilation issues. So they put these fans in front of everything. And I found that a really interesting metaphor because the British argument for keeping all the stolen artefacts instead of repatriating them is that they can take better care of them.

Your paintings are characterised by its unfinished quality, drawing attention to surprising elements, like a fan. What’s the idea behind that?

They’re really left unfinished because there’s usually a particular part of it that interests me or what I think is the crux of the painting. In the case of the Assyrian wall fragments: focusing on the fan brings a friction to the whole composition. The fan becomes really dominant in the image, and everything almost falls back. Also, I think a lot of leaving it unfinished is because the whole thing doesn’t matter. The whole painting is just context for this one element that I think is really worth paying attention to.

Is it true that you worked on your paintings right to the last minute?

It’s true! These paintings take a very long time. And I’m just bad at setting realistic deadlines for myself. I’ve had about two and a half months to make it, and it’s not enough. I’m in LA right now, visiting the art fair, and actually I’m working on a small painting in my hotel room. I’ll be travelling with it on the plane to Berlin.

  • On Value, through Apr 13, Tanya Leighton Gallery, details.