While the figure featured prominently in Richards’ earliest artworks, it appeared in disembodied form for many years as detached heads, arms, legs, and feet. It was not until 1997 that Richards sculpted a life-sized figure. Signaling his deepening engagement with the Tuskegee Airmen, Richards created a series of sculptures cast from his own body, including Free F’All (1997), Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999), and the namesake of this exhibition, Are You Down? (2000). In this period, Richards’ vision and voice found its fullest form.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a touchstone in Richards’ artwork throughout the second half of the 1990s. Richards expressed his relationship to their legacy, stating: “The Tuskegee airmen are a perfect metaphor because they were considered race men and were working to overturn all the myths and uplift the race. You would work twice as hard and be an example to your race. They were getting into those planes and flying twice as many missions as white pilots because they were standard bearers of their race. They had to be brave, no matter how heavily out-gunned they were. It’s also interesting in terms of the interior psychological dialogue that must have been going on with them. Especially the fact that once they landed the planes and walked out, they could not eat in the same mess quarters as white officers. They had segregated barracks. Yet they were fighting for the ideas of freedom, justice, and the American way. It’s a very complicated metaphor. It has a lot to do with my own questions about my place within society. Working within society, making art, and basically making the culture of the society.”