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What does it look like, entail and mean to attend to, care for, comfort, and defend, those already dead, those dying and those living lives consigned to the possibility of always-imminent death, life lived in the presence of death…It means work. It is work: hard emotional, physical and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying, to ease their way, and also to the needs of the living.

—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

Petzel Gallery is pleased to present SELF MUST DIE, a solo exhibition event by New York-based artist Derek Fordjour. The show, Fordjour’s first with the gallery, is an offering of creative labor in response to our current moment, a deeply personal and collective state of anxiety around death and hyper-visible racial violence. It examines the nature of martyrdom, vulnerabilities inherent to living in a Black body, performance of competency, and the liminal space existing between autonomy and control.

In SELF MUST DIE, Fordjour interrogates the inevitability of actual death,  made more urgent by the realities of a global pandemic, and points to the aspirational death of the artist’s ego brought into focus by a burgeoning career. It is both cultural manifesto and personal declaration. The show is comprised of three parts: VESTIBULE, a site-specific sculptural installation; Fly Away, a live puppetry art performance; and a suite of new paintings.

VESTIBULE offers a collection of sculptural objects imbued with biblical allegory and the spirit of James Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation. It refashions the gallery as a secular yet sacred space of memorial. Among its features, the small entry compels visitors to undergo a destabilizing bodily shift that elicits an intimate and reorienting experience. A directional light from above slowly combs the entire room, invoking both searchlight and spotlight, ideas central to the recent death of Breonna Taylor. Constructed of bituminous coal and wrought iron, Taylor Memorial hangs from above.


Derek Fordjour, Pall Bearers

Derek Fordjour

Pall Bearers


Acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, oil pastel and foil on newspaper mounted on canvas 

102.25 x 74.25 inches

254 x 182.9 cm

Derek Fordjour, Eulogy

Derek Fordjour



Acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, and oil pastel on newspaper mounted on canvas

74.25 x 50.25 inches

182.9 x 121.9 cm

Derek Fordjour, Procession (After Ellis Wilson)

Derek Fordjour

Procession (After Ellis Wilson)


Acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, and oil pastel on newspaper mounted on canvas 

76.5 x 115 inches

194.3 x 292.1 cm

Derek Fordjour, Chorus of Maternal Grief

Derek Fordjour

Chorus of Maternal Grief


Acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, and oil pastel on newspaper mounted on canvas

80 x 72 inches

203.2 x 182.9 cm

Derek Fordjour, Freehand Blackball Tondo 50

Derek Fordjour

Freehand Blackball Tondo 50


Acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, oil pastel, and foil on newspaper mounted on canvas

48.25 inch diameter

122.6 cm diameter

Derek Fordjour, Ascension

Derek Fordjour



Resin, plaster, soil, cayenne pepper, acrylic, steel and found object

85 x 22.5 inches

215.9 x 57.2 cm

Derek Fordjour, Domicile

Derek Fordjour



Fabric, wire, clay, acrylic, dirt, electric wire, light bulb, battery, wood and found object

38 x 15.5 inches

96.5 x 39.4 cm

Derek Fordjour, Barrier Stall

Derek Fordjour

Barrier Stall


Resin and brass

48 x 26.5 x 26.5 inches

121.9 x 67.3 x 67.3 cm

Derek Fordjour, Contrapposto (Teal)

Derek Fordjour

Contrapposto (Teal)


Resin, brass, walnut wood

33.25 x 19 x 18 inches

84.5 x 48.3 x 45.7 cm

Derek Fordjour, Taylor Memorial

Derek Fordjour

Taylor Memorial


Resin, steel and coal

32 x 19 x 19 inches

81.3 x 48.3 x 48.3 cm

Derek Fordjour, Nocturnal

Derek Fordjour



Resin, coal, brass, fiberboard and live cremon flowers 

38 x 25.25 x 12 inches

96.5 x 64.1 x 30.5 cm

Derek Fordjour, Birmingham Steel

Derek Fordjour

Birmingham Steel


Resin, nickel, steel, birch and walnut wood, velvet, globe lights, wax 

40.25 x 28 x 13.75 inches

102.2 x 71.1 x 34.9 cm

Derek Fordjour, Sunrise Cotton

Derek Fordjour

Sunrise Cotton


Resin, steel, synthetic fur, wool, suede fibers, hand blown glass, copper leaf and fiberboard

40 x 28 x 10 inches

101.6 x 71.1 x 25.4 cm

Fly Away, a collaboration between Fordjour and award-winning puppeteer Nick Lehane, is performed by a stellar cast, with an original score composed by John Aylward and performed live by oboist Hassan Anderson. The puppet is a Fordjour-designed, hand-sculpted figure crafted by Robert Maldonado. The protagonist’s narrative arc rises and falls along a journey of personal discovery. Larger themes that course through Fordjour’s body of work become resonant. Fly Away performances are scheduled at 2pm and 5pm daily. Tickets are free and available upon request. For additional information on scheduling, COVID-19 safety precautions and reservations, please visit

Spanning two galleries are several new paintings, executed in Fordjour’s signature collage technique, representing the latest developments in his studio practice. The first is a suite of paintings based on Black funerary tradition. The second gallery presents a broad range of subjects including several at monumental scale.

Slideshow Two

Derek Fordjour, Showtime!

Derek Fordjour



Acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, oil pastel, and foil on newspaper mounted on canvas 

108 x 140 inches

274.3 x 355.6 cm

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