With influences ranging from Renaissance portraiture to street artists and painters like Kehinde Wiley and Shepard Fairey, Los Angeles-based artist and muralist Gabe Gault grew up in Venice Beach. But his latest work transports us to 1960s Memphis in an exploration of Black history and Afrofuturism. An immersive VR exhibition, “I Am A Man” pays homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Memphis sanitation strike. And people 18+ in the US and Canada can step inside and experience it for themselves in Horizon Worlds, from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm PT each day, now through February 28 in honor of Black History Month.
Gault is the first Artist in Residence of the new Metaverse Culture Series which is focused on creating a more accessible entry point into the future of technology for historically excluded communities. Gault recently joined actor Jay Ellis (HBO’s Insecure) and other prominent Black creators and media in Horizon Workrooms for a “Black Future” discussion exploring how the metaverse can become a space for Black culture and creativity to thrive. Click here to learn more.
To travel to “I Am A Man” from inside Horizon Worlds:
Turn over your left wrist and select the Three Line icon from the Personal Menu, and then select the Pin icon (towards the bottom)
Select the Magnifying Glass icon (in the upper right-hand corner)
Use the virtual keyboard to search for “I Am A Man”
Click the picture of Gabe Gault’s “I Am A Man” to travel to the world
“I wanted to build something that was an experience,” Gault says. “I want you to be able to go into this world and interact and explore it—and look at Black history in a different light and different way. I wanted you to be able to feel like you’re there with the marchers, that you’re there with Rosa Parks. It’s this history that we all know and are familiar with, but you can experience it in a new way where it makes you think about where we came from as we learn from the past.”
Gault drew inspiration from an earlier VR experience, also titled I Am A Man, which uses historical film and photographs along with voice narrations of actual Civil Rights participants to similarly bring history to life.
“I saw that experience go up, and I was like, ‘Man, I want to create something that has that same light to it,’” Gault explains. “I wanted to incorporate MLK as the frontline and center of that world. It’s more of a curated museum experience when you’re looking at a piece of art and what that art represents.”
Throughout the exhibit, you can find floating flowers—the Blue Iris that’s native to Memphis, which Gault uses to symbolize “the beauty from the rough.” Looming over the scene, you’ll see a monumental MLK who watches over the city. And behind him, there’s a framed tiger-print camouflage backdrop that Gault says “represents the theme of blending in and standing out—and the people who blend into my everyday life and stand out by making a huge impact on who I am today.”
While Gault’s been following the VR space for years, he used to see it primarily as a gaming platform. “Everybody wanted it as a kid,” he says. “I remember when Oculus was a small booth at E3, and then each year it got a little bit bigger—and then it was this giant structure: a two-story building in the convention center. I was like, ‘Yeah, now it’s finally here.’ And now, I feel like with the emerging opportunities with the metaverse and VR, it’s more than just that. It’s an experience. It’s a new way to create and express yourself.”
Looking to the future, Gault expects the arts to become increasingly interactive. “I think what we define as art in the 21st century is not going to be the same for the next era,” he says. “It’s already changed so much in the past three years that I can’t even predict where it’s going to be at. The drop of NFTs has shifted our world to an entirely new level. I imagine it as endless creativity at this point. You can go experience something that doesn’t take millions of dollars to build. A single person can build a curated space where people can virtually visit it or experience it on their computer. I think that that’s where art is going to land. It’s open for everybody—it’s an open source kind of thing.”
If people take one thing away from I Am A Man, Gault hopes that would be feeling what it must have been like to have lived through this specific moment in time. “It’s intimidating, and it’s uncomfortable,” he says, “but it’s also a cool experience to see your Black history icons in a certain light and in a nice space for Black History Month that you can keep revisiting if you so please.”
Outside of VR, Gault is finishing up the Glass City River Wall project—the largest mural in the nation, which should reach completion sometime this year. If the team decides to complete the wall’s back side, it would become the largest mural in the world.
“After that, I’m not tapped out, but I’m ready to take it easy,” Gault says. “Maybe work from home and do some more VR murals—just do stuff I’m really interested in. That’s my overall goal. I feel like that’s how I want to live life: just create day to day and not force it.”