Maps Glover at Save the Seed. Credit: Fernando Castro of Vantage Productions

Sign up for our free newsletter

“The rush of performing is pretty unmatched,” Maps Glover says. “That vibration of you and the audience connecting on that unspoken level is an unmatched feeling, and I miss it tremendously.”

Glover, a performance and conceptual artist originally from Charles County, Maryland, has a slight build and an easy smile. Before the pandemic, he was one of D.C.’s leading emerging artists, known mostly for his performance work around police brutality, which became a dominant theme in his practice in 2017. This time last year, he even had plans to work in Asia. He’s reluctant to go into detail, but the pandemic put that, and most other arts events, on hold. Museums closed, galleries closed, and artists working in different media were forced to rethink their practices. The lockdown cut into Glover’s work, and he slowed down. But in isolation, he returned home and discovered new layers in his artistic practice, even if he still misses the in-person connections of performing.

Over the last five years, Glover built his work around in-person encounters. His last exhibition and public performance, Maps Glover: Save the Seed,took place in the fall of 2019 atCulture House DC in Southwest. Along with a performance piece, “Jump for the Life,” he showed paintings and made the space his own by painting the walls and suspending works from the ceiling. Seeds are a trope in Glover’s work; they refer to development of community, of intention, or of Black artists like himself. “The future of the art world is Black,” reads a T-shirt on his website.

“Maps was one of the more established emerging artists,” says Save the Seed curator and art adviser Andrew Jacobson. Jacobson describes it as “more of an experiential show,” he says, “as opposed to a typical gallery setting, which is dry, you have an opening, and passed food and wine and white walls.” 

For Save the Seed, Glover re-created “Jump for the Life,”a work he developed in collaboration with photographer Timoteo Murphy. In the original performance, Glover spent 24 hours visiting and jumping at sites throughout D.C. chosen by Murphy based on their significance in his own life. Glover jumped in honor of victims of police brutality in the U.S., and Murphy documented each leap. In “Jump 31,” Glover is well off the ground with toes pointed down and his neck arched back. In another, his legs are bent, his knees nearly touching his chest, as his arms splay out to each side. Physical stress often plays a role in Glover’s practice. “You give a day, they gave their life,” Glover says. 

In a 2019 interview with the Washington Informer, Glover described choosing to jump as a celebration of the victim’s presence. “I wanted to create an image that felt as if their souls were being released out the body right before they passed,” he said at the time. At Save the Seed, Glover jumped 655 times—the total number of people killed that year by police when he first conceived of the artwork in August 2019. By the end of 2019, there were over 1,000 victims, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.

Glover became known in the D.C. arts community for works like “Jump for the Life,” but he only incorporated performance into his practice in 2016, when he had a residency at Latela Curatorial in Brookland. The work was called “Maps in a Box,” and he performed by necessity more than anything. “I didn’t have access to any of the resources that I typically use to make art,” he says, “and all I had was my body.” Glover created a “tattered box” from canvas, plastic, and tape. Passersby looked in and saw Glover seated inside. This was after the nonprofit arts space Union Arts closed, and Glover saw how artists around him had no space to show work or even work in. “Knowing I had nothing to offer in terms of space or money,” he says, “I offered my body as an example of creating regardless of space, just standing up for art.” 

Inside the box, Glover realized the physicality of performing connected him to the work. “How can you be more focused on an issue you’re talking about than creating the issue and putting it on your body?” he says. Viewers also engaged with him differently. “It goes from people saying with the painting ‘That’s really nice, those colors are really beautiful,’ to ‘I just sat there and I watched you for 30 minutes and I was brought to tears.’” The live component made it more compelling. “People can see themselves in the performance quicker than they can see themselves in a painting,” he says.

“Maps in a Box” was a protest, according to Glover. “It was me feeling so compelled to do something to be aligned with the community,” he says, “to show my support.” It led to work like “Jump,” and social solidarity became central in his practice. But in lockdown, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention after the killing of George Floyd and people grappled with his work around police brutality, he also reconsidered the work. “Conceptually and intentionally, it sends a purpose, but I was asking myself what I could actually do to say something, to express how I was feeling,” he says.

When the world shut down, Glover returned to Charles County and pivoted again. He did video work for Transformer, a gallery he’s worked with before, he contributed to the Arlington Arts Center virtual exhibition By Proxy, and he painted. “You can’t compare a global pandemic to any other [thing],” he says, “but the artist life in D.C., it prepares you for hard times, and for having to figure it out. You’re always just trying to figure it out.”

Maps Glover. Credit: Fernando Castro of Vantage Productions

Blair Murphy, AAC’s acting executive director, recruited Glover for By Proxy. She knew his work from a performance on 14th Street NW a few years before. She followed him on Instagram and found his presence there to be a performance, too. “For a lot of artists, social media is about promotion, but for Maps, [it] is the medium he’s using,” she says, referring both to his posts and his live sessions during which he paints and chats with viewers. The dexterity of his work and his online presence, Murphy thought, would work well in a digital exhibition. “The fact that [performance] is about a person moving in space, it lends itself to online presentation, or can be videotaped, it can live in that space in a way that other artwork can’t. With painting, the difference between showing a painting in a gallery and showing a painting as a JPEG on a computer, there’s sort of no upside to having it on a monitor,” she says. 

But she also says Glover’s performance has always relied on the power of in-person interaction. “He works in a way that’s somehow trying to connect with the audience or get a response from the audience,” she says, “which is not always how artists approach performance … with [his] performance there’s a sense of facing outward or reaching outward into the world.” 

Murphy categorizes the work as “social practice,” “where artists create situations for people to be involved in,” she says, “as opposed to creating an object or as opposed to performance being some sort of physical action that people witness.” For By Proxy, Glover returned to the idea of the seed. He had participants communicate the impact they wanted to have on their communities and grew rosemary, sage, and a little mint with that intention, which could later be consumed as a tea.

Tad Sare, chair of animation at Delaware College of Art and Design, where Glover studied photography, always expected his former student to meet 2020’s challenges. He knows how dynamic Glover is. “He engages with new media, no problem,” says Sare, “digital, traditional, oh, he’s all about it, it doesn’t matter for him; he can create images, tell stories however.” That’s why he expected Glover to be a good fit for Awesomesauce, a pandemic-accessible DCAD show he was organizing. The show highlights the work of former students who have shifted their practice away from traditional fine arts. “He’s able to see, ‘If this isn’t working for me, I’ll go this way,’” Sare says. “You can see that in his artwork too, that’s why he has such a range of stuff.”

Awesomesauce opened in early February.  Glover’s piece, “Aquarius fly trap,” is on view from the street outside the gallery. The work consists of three dioramas or portals, which passersby look inside to view videos in which Glover is performing. Viewers under 6 feet tall have to stand on their toes to see inside. “We’ve both been giggling about that,” says Sare, “that idea of people having to physically stretch in order to witness his work.”

The portals are called “Salvation,” “Solar Plexus Chakra,” and “Depression,” and Glover says the work is about the tension between how feelings of liberation and salvation can exist in the same person experiencing depression and imprisonment. Glover also refers to “Solar Plexus Chakra” as the “home” box. 

Inside the “home” box, you can see the two characters who Glover builds “Aquarius fly trap” around: One is a traveler from the future, and the other is an incarcerated person. The “Depression” portal features a split-screen black-and-white video, and the incarcerated figure stands on both sides of the screen. One yells while the other is ashen-faced. “What’s coming out of my mouth might not always show up on my body,” Glover says, “and what’s happening on my body you might not hear.” The two go back and forth. The incarcerated figure quickly calls to mind Glover’s social justice-driven performances, but he stresses the metaphorical terms of the work. “It’s hard to put words to something that is an isolating experience,” Glover says, “where I don’t know what I’m thinking or why I’m thinking, but it’s happening, dammit.” Illustrating what he can’t describe has been an impulse for Glover since childhood, when he remembers imagining screaming so loud his voice box would run out and drawing a picture of what that felt like. 

Sare finds “Aquarius fly trap” more sophisticated than Glover’s past work. “His performances are fantastic,” Sare says. “He can go big and grand, he’s captivating, you want to watch him.” But the narrative of the portals is stronger. “Some of the performances,” Sare says, “are so site-specific [that] even looking at the documentation on YouTube afterwards you think ‘This is great, but I don’t get it.’” 

But the subject matter surprised Sare because he had never seen Glover down while at DCAD. “When he came into the room,” Sare says, “the whirlwind followed him.” He saw the spiritualism in Glover’s work, the connection to art history, contemporary culture, and being a Black artist; but he hadn’t seen Glover’s work look inward like this. Sare sees Glover in this work. “It’s more about his biography than any references outside himself,” he says. “It’s all internal, these things he wants to talk about.”

Glover puts what’s different about “Aquarius fly trap” into the context of his wider work. “When I was younger, the most important thing for my artwork was for people to just like it,” he says, “to just say that’s good, that was the goal.” He sees that early work as less honest. “What I was doing before was being afraid that my concept might be too obscure or too abstract,” he says, “so I would try to dumb it down to get people to connect to it, but that’s not me.”

He laughs as he says this. “I’m just getting more comfortable in my skin,” he says. “I’m becoming more fearless in terms of what I think is important to express, which is the juxtaposition between depression and salvation, both of those things existing in a person, in an experience.”

For the time being, in-person performances are still out the window, but Glover’s taken it well. Lately, he’s been developing a new series of paintings that he’s posting on Instagram. They’re portraits constructed from collages of figurative paintings and abstract paintings. Like the future traveler from “Aquarius fly trap,” they depict figures from other realities. Many feature Glover’s signature “matter” patterns, which look like pulsing neural networks. For Glover, these patterns signify potential. “Everything is made up of matter,” he says, “and before it gets to the point of being something, it could be anything.” 

Each painting comes with a brief description in the caption. One reads: “A face anybody could love. Name: hey love, Planet of origin: heart center, Mission: to love.” A figure’s eyes droop like they’re going to slide off the canvas. “I’m just rearranging the pieces of life,” Glover says, “and trying to paint them and make them beautiful before they disappear into nothing, return to matter.”