In the not-too-distant past, Love Quetee spent her days in full camouflage — sometimes holding a rifle — on a military base in Iraq.
There were days, she says, when the sounds of missiles sent her and the rest of the base running for cover in underground bunkers.
“I was scared at first, but it was a great experience,” says Quetee, whose deployment was spent mostly in human resources and operating post offices in Iraq and Kuwait. “I think it’s like any job really. It’s about the people. As long as the people there are great, you’re going to have a good time. So I had a good time.”
But this week, as she escorted a visitor around the gallery room at the 410 Project, rifles and air raids seemed like a world away.
Quetee’s exhibit, “Ghetto Visionary,” offers a powerful statement on many things: Black culture and fashion, the varying perceptions of the word “ghetto,” the obsession some white Americans have with Black women’s hair. One piece takes aim at the lip size, a commentary on natural gifts versus the countless women seeking artificial means to replicate them.
But Quetee, who will graduate from Minnesota State University in a few weeks, says she wouldn’t have painted any of them had it not been for her time in Iraq.
After telling a chaplain about her artistic side (which until then had been limited to drawing), he made her an offer she had a hard time refusing. He wanted a mural painted on the base, and he wanted Quetee to paint it.
“I thought, ‘Well I’ve never done this before. And I don’t usually paint, but I’m going to try and do this anyway.’ And I did it, and I had such a great time. It looked really beautiful. So I was like, ‘I really love painting, now.’ And that was when I switched my mindset.”
The result was, for a first-time muralist, extraordinary. It was a replica, of sorts, of the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom of Worship” and has the phrase “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience” across the top. Quetee’s version zooms in a bit to crop out some of Rockwell’s beloved original. The details are striking, however, especially for a first-timer working with whatever brushes and paints the army base happened to have on hand.
Quetee used the momentum from that victory to pursue an art degree. And just months before graduating, she landed a gallery show at the 410 Project.
For the pieces in this exhibit, Quetee chose circular wooden canvases. Why? Circles just seemed more interesting, she says. And as for wood instead of canvas, it’s cheaper to prime the wood for painting than it is to purchase circular canvas blanks.
In her artist statement, Quetee says: “The concept of ‘Ghetto Visionary’ is about celebrating Black and ghetto culture. Ghettos are communities created to house low-class, low-income people and minorities. The word ‘ghetto’ is often used as a degrading term, usually meaning tasteless or classless. I want to show that being ghetto is not a negative thing but rather it’s being fashionable, innovative and creative. It’s about having the perseverance to thrive through restrictions and hardships. I want to show that Black culture is beautiful in all aspects. To be ghetto is to be visionary.”
The works take viewers through a series of images some may associate with Black culture, including one with various tones of brown and black skin, and fingers decked out with elaborate nails.
“This one is called ‘Ghetto Until Proven Fashionable,’ and it’s about how fashion that was seen as ‘ghetto’ or bad,” she says. “And then nowadays it’s just fashionable. Everybody wears it.”
Several of the pieces deal with hair. A head full of beaded braids, a person combing their hair, a man with various combs and picks tucked into a full afro.
“This one’s called defying gravity,” she says, chuckling and gesturing to the picks and combs. “It’s kind of like defying gravity because his hair is growing up and you can hold things in it.”
While many of her pieces show faces, two of her favorites show no faces at all.
One shows the backs of three heads, each topped with a durag — a hair care and protection device — and each is rendered with exquisite detail. In particular, Quetee says, the one on the right, with sparkling gems, was especially time consuming. She depicted the subjects from the rear, she says, to better focus on the durags.
The other piece show’s an assemblage of bonnets, also commonly used to protect hair. In varying colors and sizes, the bonnets presented a challenge with their seemingly infinite angles, curves and details.
“I think that showing it from the back shots has a lot more mysteriousness to it,” she says of the durags. “And these bonnets also took a really long time. I can’t say that I’m actually finished with it, yet, but that’s OK. It’s also another favorite because just because of the detail. It was frustrating. This is one of the first ones that I started, but it ended up being one of the last ones just because I kept putting it aside.”
Dana Sikkila, executive director of the 410 Project, said having the work of young, talented artists is great for the gallery and community.
“It’s exciting for us to host new artists in the space that hadn’t shown here in the past,” Sikkila says, “and just see the community celebrate visual work.”
Quetee was born in Liberia, an English-speaking nation on Africa’s western edge, just southeast of Sierra Leone.
Her family moved to the U.S. when she was 6 years old.
Her family now lives in Brooklyn Park.
She’s hoping for a future that’s full of creativity, and one that doesn’t require going to a war zone for inspiration.