Ayé Aton
Atonment in Balance

April 25–June 8, 2024

MARCH is pleased to announce Atonment in Balance, a first attempt to decode and organize the complex universe of Ayé Aton, linking works across time and space, from his earliest murals painted in Chicago homes to small works on paper, created in the twilight of his life at home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Atonement is reparation. Atonement is action. In a religious context, it describes the process by which a person removes obstacles to their reconciliation with God. In the secular world, an individual may atone for their transgressions through good deeds or by issuing an apology. In both instances, the desired goal is the fundamental restoration of balance, a state of fragile harmony whereby things exist without conflict so that they may ultimately prosper... read more

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Ayé Aton playing his custom-painted drum set at the Bayou in Baton Rouge, LA, circa 1990.

Aton looked to history for symbologies and visual building blocks, reworking Egyptian and Adinkra symbols into various paintings. On the back of Nyame Dua, he wrote “Symbol of the presence of God and of God’s protection. The Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of Ghana, West Afrika. The large symbol is the main one and the others are improvised versions. Nyame Dua is also used for rituals such as cleansing and is a reinforcement of the sense of sacredness and the protectiveness of God.”

Ayé Aton and others playing at 67th Street and S Clyde Avenue, Chicago, IL. nd.

Record Worlds storefront mural, Chicago, c. 1960s-70s.

Ayé Aton, Abstraction in Essence II, 2006, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 20 inches.

Interior mural, Chicago, c. 1960s-70s.

Press Release

Ayé Aton
Atonment in Balance

April 25–June 8, 2024

 

Atonement is reparation. Atonement is action. In a religious context, it describes the process by which a person removes obstacles to their reconciliation with God. In the secular world, an individual may atone for their transgressions through good deeds or by issuing an apology. In both instances, the desired goal is the fundamental restoration of balance, a state of fragile harmony whereby things exist without conflict so that they may ultimately prosper.

By all indications, Ayé Aton (born Robert Underwood) was a man looking for balance. Or perhaps the lifelong musician was more interested in a-tone-ment, tapped out in steady drumbeats and painted across walls, boards, and sheets of paper over decades. But this isn’t atonement, it’s atonment; the deliberate omission of a single letter in our exhibition’s namesake drawing demonstrates the artist’s need to place himself squarely in the middle of both intimately personal and unfathomably large cosmic struggles, a metaphoric flag in the ground of his creative universe. His chosen surname, Aton, meaning disc, referred to anything flat and circular by Egyptians in the Old Kingdom. The moon by extension was silver aton while the sun was referred to as the disc of the day, a place where Ra, the god of the sun and father of all Egyptian gods was thought to reside. Everything in Aton’s world meant something and his chosen name provided not only links to Egypt and its historic achievements but to his first teacher, the polymath Sun Ra.

In 1960, at the impressionable age of 20 years old, Underwood moved to Chicago and began spending time with a study group made up of older men who played checkers in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. According to John Corbett: “He was by all accounts, an inquisitive young man, asking deep questions about all manners of obscure topics, and several members of the study group told him about their go-to guy for such queries: a fellow they knew as Sunny Ray, who had recently left town but was best equipped to help him on his quest for knowledge. Obtaining Ra’s number, he phoned New York. Ra was immediately receptive, and for the next eleven years, Underwood and Ra spoke almost daily. Their conversations amounted to an informal mentorship: Ra gave him instructions, guided him, and discussed his research with the budding visual artist.” Shortly after these conversations began, Underwood changed his name to Ayé Aton and began painting murals across building facades and in the homes of Chicago’s South Side residents. Aesthetically, he was guided by Ra’s suggestions of Egyptian motifs, colorful abstractions, and outer space imagery—themes and subjects that would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Inspired by Afrika and seduced by abstraction, Aton was an aesthete with roving and metaphoric interests, creating artworks that both embraced and transcended their formal qualities. The paintings are simultaneously dynamic and static, balanced and chaotic, emblematic of an erudite thinker with an expressive flair. Though he began painting as a muralist, Aton soon thereafter adopted other materials: board, paper, and more manageable and portable surfaces, a practical consideration that also afforded him control over the works’ fate. Conceptually, Aton rejected the notion of Afrofuturism as escapism, wholly embracing Afrocentrism as a guiding philosophy. Indeed, his works consistently reference and honor specific African countries, tribes, dances, and other hallmarks of culture. He also delved into deep meditations on design, abstraction, and aesthetic experiments that rendered unknown events and beings in the future.

Atonment in Balance is a first attempt in a lengthy process of decoding and organizing the complex universe inhabited by the artist, linking works across time and space, from his earliest murals painted in Chicago to small works on paper, created in the twilight of his life at home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Like all significant artists, Aton cycled through bodies of work and interests over the course of his life. While the surfaces, palettes, and scales evolved over time, Aton’s visual language and the deep intellectual roots of his work remained consistent for nearly sixty years, tangible evidence of an artist who sought clarity on the same unanswerable questions that plague us all in a dizzying search for truth that would occupy Aton until his inevitable return to the sun.

Ayé Aton (né Robert Underwood) was born in 1940 in Versailles, Kentucky and died in 2017 in Lexington, KY. His work has been exhibited at The Studio Museum (New York, NY), the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL), the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia, PA), the University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), Emory University (Atlanta, GA), and in the 2023-24 Shanghai Biennale (Shanghai, China). Aton played drums and percussion with Sun Ra & His Arkestra from 1972-1976, and can be heard on the albums Discipline 27-II (1972) and Space is the Place (1973), as well as on Infinite Spirit Music’s Live Without Fear (1980). His murals can be seen in the film Space is the Place, directed by John Coney, written by Sun Ra & Joshua Smith, and produced by Jim Newman.

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Selected Press

Elephant
May 8, 2024
The Cosmic Reawakening of Ayé Aton
By Gwyneth Giller

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