Taurus Burns embraces his zebra stripes in ‘Created Equal’

The Detroit-based artist talks how growing up biracial influenced his black-and-white paintings

Feb 24, 2023 at 5:13 pm
click to enlarge Taurus Burns. - CJ Benniger/ Courtesy photo
CJ Benniger/ Courtesy photo
Taurus Burns.

This feature highlights a different local artist each week. Got someone in mind you think deserves the spotlight? Hit us up at [email protected].

Artist of the week: Taurus Burns

For Taurus Burns, growing up biracial meant some things were, unfortunately, black and white.

The Detroit-based painter’s mother is white and his father is Black.

“Once I went home with a white friend after school to play and his grandmother made me leave the moment she came home because she didn’t want any Black kids in her house,” Burns tells Metro Times. “This kind of thing happened again several years later with another friend in a completely different state. As a kid, those experiences were painful because I was just this innocent kid and they seemed repulsed by me.”

Now, the College of Creative Studies graduate says there is no gray area when it comes to racism — you’re either racist or anti-racist.

There is some room for gray, however, in his primarily black-and-white oil paintings. His latest exhibit Created Equal at Ferndale’s M Contemporary Art addresses the impact of systemic racism and his “lifelong introspections” on race and society.

“Beyond race, I gravitated toward painting in black and white because the absence of color seemed to better reflect a depressive condition,” he says. “I read somewhere that looking at the world in black and white is the hallmark of depression. It probably sounds dark but I want that feeling to come through in the work. I want people to feel unsettled and disquieted.”

We wouldn’t describe his work as unsettling, but the colorless canvases do carry a feeling of heaviness. It’s like the kind of depression you’d get after being forced to stay in a dungeon devoid of sunlight — one that’s clearly marked by the artist's internal and external conflict.

“We were all born into this system. We didn’t create it but we have to take responsibility for fixing it.”

tweet this

“Before I was born, my grandfather disowned my mom for marrying my Dad because he’s Black,” he says. “This taught me that racism trumps family, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized the damage to my self-esteem. For a long time, I was bitter about it. Now I can only imagine the social pressure for a middle-class white man to conform in a conservative, rural, predominantly white community in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s and I realize it’s not about my grandpa. We were all born into this system. We didn’t create it but we have to take responsibility for fixing it.”

Zebra stripes are a recurring motif throughout the exhibit. In one piece, “The Birth of Zebra Mane,” a half-white and half-black panther rips apart its skin to reveal a zebra pattern underneath. “Two Worlds, One Cup” shows white and black liquid being swirled together in a young man’s head.

“When I was young I got called a zebra by Black kids a few times,” Burns says. “It wasn’t really upsetting, but it made me feel like they didn’t see me as one of them. That feeling has stuck with me throughout my life, the feeling of not being enough, or being too much, of one race or the other.”

Now “zebra” is a label Burns embraces, saying “it’s a poetic, beautiful way of symbolizing mixed-race identity and I’ve found myself looking for ways to incorporate zebra stripes into my paintings.”

Another piece, “Before Black Lives Mattered,” depicts a black panther arm wrestling with a KKK member with an assault rifle at his side.

“When the protests were happening around the country following the murder of George Floyd, I thought about how my daughter and stepson were the same age I was when the Rodney King video came out,” he says about the painting. “Nearly thirty years later and my kids are entering adulthood in a country that continues to enable, if not encourage, this behavior.”

click to enlarge "Two Worlds, One Cup" by Taurus Burns. - Courtesy of M Contemporary Art
Courtesy of M Contemporary Art
"Two Worlds, One Cup" by Taurus Burns.

While lacking color, his paintings are not an invitation to be colorblind, he says.

“The concept (of being colorblind) came about during the ’60s when well-intentioned whites took the aspirational goal of the Civil Rights movement — that Americans would one day judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin — as a directive,” he says. “The problem is that instead of making people blind to race, color blindness makes them blind to racism. As a result, any lack of progress or success in the Black community is blamed on personal shortcomings or moral failings rather than considering the race-based systemic advantages. The work of dismantling structural racism cannot be accomplished unless more white people get with the program.”

Burns was born in Kalamazoo but moved around as a young boy because his dad was in the army. He moved back to Michigan at the age of 12 after stints in Kentucky, Germany, Virginia, and Noth Carolina, and came to Detroit to attend CCS in 1998.

He’s been in the city ever since. Reflecting back on his upbringing, Burns says his family often lived in either majority-white or majority-bBlack neighborhoods, which felt odd to someone growing up in a multiracial family.

He says his early experiences with racism influenced his art, but the 2016 death of Philando Castile by a cop in the Minneapolis area was a breaking point for him.

“Something in me broke after seeing that video,” he says. “Suddenly all bets were off, and any limits I had been placing on my work about what was acceptable in art quickly began to break away. In 2018 I had a solo show called ‘Troublemaker’ and the entire exhibit was about me facing down the widespread unconscious bias of Black men as dangerous.”

He adds, “I read a quote recently that went ‘interracial cooperation has always been a threat to white supremacy.’ I think about the fact that it was illegal for my parents to marry just six years before I was born due to anti-miscegenation laws — laws that were still on the books in Alabama in the year 2000. You can say that all that is history but here we are almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century and we can’t come together on race. In a very straightforward way, by mixing black and white I feel that I’m bringing the two races together in my paintings.”

Where to see his work: Created Equal is up at M Contemporary Art from Friday, Feb. 24 to March 18.

Coming soon: Metro Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Detroit stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.

Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter