Pin-pricked Deities: The Art of Joyce Scott

Joyce Scott, Kickin’ It with the Old Masters
Baltimore Museum of Art
ISBN 0-912298-72-3

Pin-pricked Deities: The Art of Joyce Scott
(Originally published in 2000, re-edited in 2015 — photos not from original catalogue, and do not necessarily relate to the text).

By Keith Morrison

The art of Joyce Scott bridges several areas of international art that are usually considered distinct from one another. The thread that runs through her work is the spirit of craft, which she explores as a source of twentieth century imagery. She weaves together what is traditionally considered fine art with the techniques of craft to create images whose purpose is as much for contemplation as for utility: jewelry, pieces, that function both as decorative ornament and sculptural narrative; quilts layered with symbolic meaning which could also serve as houseware; costumes for her original performance pieces, which could function for street wear as well as for artistic statement.

Her art spans a range of media, including book art, fashion, jewelry, printmaking, performance, printmaking and sculpture. She interrelates these media, and uses some of them as props or costumes in her performances. Her art in each medium reveals a personal lexicon and cosmogony, yet in this incredible diversity of expression, perhaps the most familiar unifying signature is the use of beads. The surface of a Joyce Scott visual work glistens and sparkles with sensual beads. Her beads are strung to become emblems of culture, politics, history and spirituality. The originality of her work places her among the most important pioneers of art today.

Joyce Scott photo

Tying all this together is Scott’s ability to be funny. Whether she is making sculpture, quilts, prints or performing on stage, Scott is funny. Hers is an ironic wit, but it bites like a serpent without respect for anyone. She will pick on you whether you are alone with her or lost in an audience. She will get into your head, and as she makes you she makes you squirm. Scott says the most outrageously funny things, and makes the most hilarious images. Arguably, she is as funny as people such as Whoopi Goldberg or Chris rock. Perhaps neither Lenny Bruce nor Richard Pryor was more outrageously funny in their day. The comic flash of her visual images electrifies with lightening associations as she spins visual one-liners and extrapolates caustic political or sexual jokes. Her wit and performance art integrate visual art and theatrical entertainment.The style and gestures of Scott’s theatrical performances extend to her fashion designs, which are also theatrical. It is as if she makes costumes for the theatre that are wearable every day.

The aesthetic sources of Joyce Scott’s art spring from the foundation of craft. By craft I refer to several interrelated ideas. First, to utilitarian objects often made by intuitive artisans in rural or isolated communities. This is folk art. Its materials and images rise from an impetus that tends to be local rather than national. Folk artists are usually unschooled. Their crafts are often improvised, based on knowledge handed down between generations. Folk craft show no distinction between art and utility for there is no such distinction in the communities in which crafts are created. In some cultures, as we know, makers of folk craft arte thought to be spiritual. Scott inherited this reverence for the skill and spirituality of craft from her forefathers. She has brought this vision of folk art to bear on international craft, meaning craftsmanship of formal art education and modern technology. Hence, one sees in her work spirituality and folksiness that is at the same time urbane. She is one of those rare artists who bridges the gap between art and craft, while at the same time transforms the concept of craft from beautiful technique to spiritual idea. Some would say the distinction between art and craft is a fallacy, but Scott’s art disarms disbelievers. Her approach to craft is not merely international but trans-cultural. Her ideas embrace folk craft from all over the world. She not only underscores the spiritual potency of art and craft, but shifts its context from the arena of the museum to the backyards of ordinary folks. She makes universal what is vernacular, putting the values of folk art on a par with the canon of high culture.

Joyce Scott has changed our understanding of craft from technically beautiful objects to objects of spirituality, meaning human aspiration for connection with the supernatural. In Scott’s art this is about Christianity to a large extent, but also about mysterious divinations similar to ones in some African religions. In her work, theatricality augments the Bible and God’s prescribed laws. This is not entirely consistent with traditional Christianity. In Christianity worldwide, truth is realized through a common and public knowledge of the word of God. Worship may be knowable to all, be they converted or not, Christian or not. Psalm 123 may be subject to doddering interpretations among the flock, but the words are known to all. The verses of the Lord’s Prayer, sung, or spoken like an anthem, are recited by all. Even private and personal worship still follow the laws of the Church. In contrast, the belief systems of many African religions require secret rather than public laws to communicate with the supernatural. One needs to be indoctrinated into the holiest of sanctums to experience the Devine. In such African religious, holy secrets are guarded fiercely by the chosen few. Here there are esoteric or encoded laws that require a concealed knowledge often called the wisdom of secret societies. The path to the supernatural is reserved only for those who pass the disguised tests of knowledge and enlightenment. Manifestations of one’s holiness is in how well one performs clandestine rites and laws. To the uninitiated, such religions appear to be occult, because their seemingly theatrical practices are mysterious. These religions are unlike many forms of Christianity where the laws and virtues are knowable for all who would believe. In Scott’s art, Christian forms harmonize with African religious theatricality.


Scott mixes materials such as cloth, ceramics, glass, metal, or pigment to create original images. As I noted earlier, the pervasive look of a Joyce Scott work is often achieved through the use of beads. Simple, inexpensive mass-produced beads that are not merely applied in a decorative surface layer. They for the structure of the entire sculptural piece, to which Scott gives three-dimensional substance without an internal armature. She uses bead in just about every medium, sometimes as accents but most frequently as the total covering of many works whose surfaces seem to buzz like a beehive. As much as she admires the Maasai of Kenya, and as much as her beadwork bears comparison with theirs, the sensibility of [her] art reminds me more of that of ancient Central Africa. Her beadwork bears comparison to such ancient Central African art as the sumptuous beaded throne of the famous Bamum sultan, Njoya, from the region of contemporary Cameroon. There, as in Scott’s work, the forms are curvilinear and organic, features are exaggerated, and the whole is loaded with beads that form decorative and shimmering patterns. Similarly, the Babende masks of central Congo are decorated with beads and cowry shells that literally glow with mysticism. The beads, quilting, inlays, embossing, and jewelry of the Chokwe masks of the southern Congo also bear comparison to Joyce Scott’s work.

Scott’s art bridges the relationship between Western art and Ancient African art in ways that have not been explored by many in the twentieth century. Beginning with Cubism, artists such as Picasso, Braque, and Gris made linkages between their art and Ancient African art. Inspired by African art, they made three-dimensional geometric (angular or curvilinear) shapes and architectonic forms. They learned to see formal structure as the essence of beauty. Elizabeth Catlett, Sargent Johnson, Marion Perkins, Nancy Prophet, and Augusta s=Savage are among the many African Americans who were influenced by African arty with geometric aspects of Cubism. Later, Surrealists were intrigued by the mysteries of what they called the Dark Continent. Imagining African sculpture to be isolated from its use in performance (which it was not) they were inspired by the perceived life in inanimate objects, Bringing the inanimate to life, Picasso (integrating Cubism and surrealism) made a baboon from a car, and Merit Oppenheimer made a teacup from fur. The use of materials here is counter to the artist’s subject matter, creating visual ironies. Max Ernst made images of animals representing human deities in his famous sculpture Capricorn. The Afro-Cuban Surrealist Wilfredo Lam expressed jungle images akin to African mysteries I his paintings, but within the confines of abstract art. Scott’s direction is different. First, she stresses organic form more than geometric ones. Second, the decorative aspect of materials and their surfaces are more important to her work than to any of those mentioned. Third, her materials do not counter her subject matter as irony so much as they become the subject matter. With surface decoration that shimmers and titillates, Scot creates a kind of mysticism.

Polk Museum Kickin’ It with Joyce ScottOther contemporary artists that bear comparison to Joyce Scott include Barbara Chase Riboud and Betye Saar. Chase Riboud typically limits her materials to wood, metal and raffia. Her forms are monumental, larger than those of Scott, and stress elegance, while Scott explores folk craft. Scott’s work is also monumental – although not in size, for the sculptures are usually small – but in proportion. Saar’s works are closer in sensibility to Scott’s. Both artists make spiritual images that suggest magic. But Saar explores a personal depth of icons, while Scott’s strength is her cross-cultural associations. Saar’s approach to magic suggest the occult, while Scott’s approach is that of the conjurer. Among African-American painters perhaps Archibald Motley’s work shows the closet temperamental affinity to Joyce Scott’s work. Although Scott to is a painter, it is in how she adds paint to surfaces of other media (sculpture, jewelry, etc.), or in how she selects beads and other colorful materials that the quality of her visual mysticism is revealed. Motley, who worked from the 1920’s through the 1960’s, was a satirist whose art was influenced by surrealism. The essence of his satirical genius was his ability to burlesque. This he did through exaggerated gestures, and theatrically gaudy colors. Motley was the conjurer of the seductive sweet life, the world of the sybarite. Scott’s vision portrays the scarecrow, gaudy plumage of the chameleon, assuming varying cultural guises that seduce your prejudices into entrapment.


However, as much as her sources are African, she borrows from cultures around the globe and from American popular culture. An inveterate traveler, Scott draws ideas from the Czech republic, Ghana, India, Mexico, Native-American localities, and Russia, among other places. She says that some of her influences come form comic books and TV, for she always keeps in touch with vernacular and popular sources. She remind s me of Miles Davis. When asked why he always returned his jazz to popular to pop musical sources, Miles replied that that was where it began. Scott gains knowledge fro TV shows such as “Beast Wars,” and War Planets.” She says she is fasicinated by their art – how they are drawn and their computer animation. She is also interested in the underlying message. “Beat Wars,” She feels has evolved a kind of neo-Buddhism, where beings are physically and mentally transformed. “Like a kid’s version of “Siddhartha,” she explains, referring to both Gautama Buddha and the protagonist of the Herman Hesse novel. To Scott’s worldly mind, “beast Wars” and “War of the Planets” relate to ancient religions and mythologies, and exemplifies life coming full circle, both in the sense that by watching these shows children can become interested in old parables, and that such futuristic stories draw from age-old themes. To her mind, so too do vernacular stories, whether they re tales of from her parents’ Southern ancestry or the local streets of Baltimore. Scott welds them all into her own theatre of high-folk narrative, combing such seemingly disparate themes as the Pentecostal Church, the Mexican Day of the Dead, funky clothes, African ceremony, and the Rodney King beating.

Scott’s approach to craft is also inspired by African American artists of the 1960’s and 70’s, who made art from many materials. These include Sam Gilliam and David Hammonds, Gilliam was perhaps the first American artist to free painting from the stretcher and the flat picture plane. But the patterns within his paintings echo African tie-dye designs, a referentiality that bears affinity to the art of Joyce Scott. Coming of age in Baltimore ion in the sixties, Scott would have known the work of Gilliam, who worked in nearby Washington, D, C., and taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Scott studied. Whether she knows him then or not (she knows him now), the popular art of African-American artists of the sixties explored tie-dyes and African patterns [which Scott knew]. Another important Washington, D.C. artist whom Scott would have known of was Alma Thomas, who made boldly colored patterns of gardens that [also] reminded people of African designs. David Hammonds explores a variety of materials as a basis for creating socially conscious and political symbols. When he began in the sixties, his approach was new to African-American artists and inspired a generation, of which Scott is a part. Hammonds and other African-American artists such as Napoleon Henderson, Nelson Stevens, and Betye Saar [also inn the sixties] began to add unusual materials such as metal, ceramics, or glass to abstract painting. Many also wove colorful fabrics that they were as likely to wear or mount on a wall or make into sculpture. They were frequently derided then, told that they were confusing issues by mixing media. “Glass on black velvet is going to be worth a lot of money someday, “ once retorted. He was right, but it was not African-American artists but Julian Schnabel 15 ears later who got all the credit. African-American artists did not invent mixed media. Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Joseph Cornell, and a host of others back to Kurt Schwitters – not to mention legions of artists from other cultures (Celtic, Egyptian, Indian, Meso-American, Scandinavian) – main mixed media the mainstay of their art. However in twentieth-century American, the idea of mixing media has been to create a technical alternative to painting and sculpture. Artists like Joyce Scott mix not just the technicality of media, but media’s cultural associations as well. Taking sociology as their nexus, they may make their art as much for utility as for contemplation. They define art vas much by what people do as how people see. As Leslie King-Hammond and Lowery Sims have said, such artists made “art as a verb.” Art becomes the garb of life.[1]

Polk Museum Kickin' It with Joyce Scott

Joyce Scotts jewelry is a case in point. Mulatto in South Africa (1986) is a necklace made of beads, ceramic, glass, plastic, photographs, thread, and wire. The whole is like a discombobulated snake that you wrap around your neck. Beaded figures of writhing animals and dolls of many colors are strung together through coils of sinewy beads. Scott uses commonly found beads, perhaps because they are a symbol of using ordinary materials to make art, which is a concept [that is] important to her. “I never want to forget my modest origin, “ she explains. Mulatto in South Africa is like a cluster of claws and tentacles from which hangs a photographic badge depicting a mulatto saying “ beach and sea Whites only. “ It is jewelry to be worn, albeit most improbable jewelry, and Joyce Scott takes bride that those who purchase her jewelry do wear it. Mulatto in South Africa functions as social and political commentary indicting Afrikaner racial policy. Yet is also a commentary on black people’s racial confusion, perhaps worldwide.

Another necklace, Nigger Lips (1992, page 35), is beadwork about a black person trapped in the spiral of life. Here Scott satirizes a satire. She exploits the racial stereotype of black people with buckteeth, large butts, and bulging eyes, all caught in the spiral. She flaunts the stereotype to expose the lie. In exposing it she exorcises it from herself and challenges the viewer to confront its reality African-America life, Scott seems to say, is predicated on a set of prejudices that remain pervasive but unspoken in our politically correct world. Joyce Scott’s art is anything but politically correct. Historically, white America perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans from behind a veil while denying it when … exposed. African Americans historically defended themselves from these stereotypes, often to the extent of denying it themselves. Sometimes they hid behind cosmetics (through processed hair or cosmetic surgery, for example), and the avoidance of [having] too many black friends. The prejudice remains unless it is confronted, and this Scott does with a vengeance in Niger Lips. With sardonic wit echoing Richard Pryor’s, Scott accents the black skin with contrasting yellow, all with beads.

After consideration of all her sources, there is no question that Scott is primarily in the mainstream of twentieth century art as she is a part of a folk art tradition or a part of African-American art. Her sculpture Lips (1992) is an example that summarizes her relationship to the art world. It is clearly indebted to such artists as Picasso, Joan Miro and Julio Gonzalez. The three-qurarter view of the face reminds one of Picasso, not only in tit shape, but also in the placement of the features. Scott’s work here also shows her acknowledgement of Cubism. The flowing wisps of hair and whimsical fantasy of the work reminds me of Miro. Like Julio Gonzalez … one of the pioneers of modern sculpture, Joyce Scott here draws her sculpture in space and linear forms, especially the outline of the face. The whole is a work of art that fits comfortably in the tradition of Surrealism through its quality of fantasy and the juxtaposition of literal imagery in non-liner relationships, such as a face attached to a tree. Yet the use of materials is uniquely Joyce Scott, as are the colors and subject matter. The garish pantomime colors are characteristic of her work. The idea of a black person growing form a tree has many African and African-American folkloric references. The mystical tree-human form is a form of spiritual life. I am also reminded of Scott Joplin’s early twentieth-century opera, Tremonisha, about a woman growing from a tree. The bulbous lips, buckteeth, and accented eyes are about white stereotypes of African Americans. Her approach to materials and her subject matter are from African-American art and from folk art as I have described. Scott’s use of surrealism is no mere eccentric choice of an artist dwarfed by more worldly influences. Hers is not traditional Surrealism, as noted much earlier in this article. Rather than an evolution of modernism, Surrealism [also] comes from other sources: Native-American Art, Mexican folk art, and African religion [for example]. The common thread among all these arts is fantasy, sometimes referred to in literature today as Magical Realism. Early in the twentieth century, Western art [or literature] did not stress [relationship to] Magical Realism … as did other cultures [especially in Latin America]. Of course, in the past Western Art explored a kind of magical realism, especially in the Late Gothic Early Renaissance periods. The art of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel, among others, explored magical fantasies in painting. Even so, these are illusions rather than facsimiles. The art of Joyce Scott, like that of the [alternative] cultures from which she take her cue, present magical-realism objects as facts rather than as the illusions of dream-like reality. Of course, Scott is conscious of her creations as art. She presents them for art audiences. The distinction between her art and that of [many of] the cultures she admires is that there is in the final analysis [is generally] presented as folk craft while hers is presented in the context for museums and galleries. She is not a folk artist but a an urbane, cosmopolitan artist who crosses over from folk art to “fine art,’ and erases the line between the two. In contemporary art, Joyce Scott is one of the pioneering figures that bridge the gap between Western art and non-Western fantasy.

Joyce Scott

Since the mid seventies Theatrical performance has been an important aspect of Joyce Scott’s work. Her earliest performances (as professional) started in Baltimore then continued briefly in New York, where she performed using masks with her friend Robert Sherman. In 1983 she began to perform with Kay Lawal, a trained actor who taught Scott many things about the stage. Scott listened to many singers: Althea Franklin, Leontyne Price, and especially Ella Fitzgerald. She loves what she calls Ella’s quickness, her ability to change cadence, temp, to sing off key, and to stop on a dime. She remains inspirited by Ella’s ability to improvise freely. She seem improvisation in singing similar to improvisation she need s to make in visual art. Both chubby women, Scott and Lewal wrote and developed material for entertainment about their bodies, about issues of sex and gender, about race and culture.

Through her partnership with Lewal Scott found a way to harmonize the range of her cultural interest as an artist by combing visual art, body adornment, and theatrical performance. They began by presenting their performances to friends, then to modest groups around Baltimore. Satirizing their own heavy-set bodies, they began to write scripts and to give theatrical performances under the name Thunder Thigh Review. Scott did most of the writing, Lewal added modifications and provided scenarios. Scott, drawing from her childhood experiences in the Pentecostal Church, and singing in Mexican bars, would also do the singing. The writing Scott did for their theatrical performances was very disciplined. Rehearsal time was planned carefully and executed in borrowed theatres and halls. Scott balanced her performance time with her visual art time in the studio. Sometimes she would write material for performances when she was away from home conducting art workshops. Often she presented short sections of longer pieces she had not yet completed. Sometimes when she was away doing performances she would tale beadwork along. Scott’s partnership with Lewal worked perfectly. Lewal, very quick-witted and a consummate artist had, like Scott, a repertoire of jokes and theatrical skills that she used in variation. The two were great at ad-lib and improvisation each always seeming to know where the other was going with an idea. “We were like Rowan and Martin,” Scott said. They performed in Baltimore to enthusiastic audiences at the Theatre Project. Scott also performed with choreographer Donald Byrd, among others, Philip Arnoult, Director of the Theatre Art Project, invited them to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in Edinburg, Scotland in 1988.

One of the earliest pieces performed by Thunder Thigh Review was the hilarious Women of Substance; about obsession wish the love of sex, food, and refrigerator, and its consequence to the two self-depreciating women. Much of the material for Women of Substance came from came from personal experiences of the two women. Scott said” “Performing is therapeutic, a means of finding a comfortable way to be myself. Women of Substance, which dealt with femininity and food, was a performance for me — getting it up on stage in black lace.[2]

Their second production, Sticking and Pulling, extended the idea of obsession, added to loneliness, and absurd and perverse obsession with body parts. Sticking and Pulling was imbued more with pathos than was Women of Substance and was accompanied by music, movement, and surrealistic images about isolation. Aspects of Sticking and Pulling continued to evolve through their performances of it at Maryland Art Place’s “Diverse Works,” and at the Theatre Project’s “Edge of Comedy series,” both in Baltimore. While she is not currently collaborating as much as she once did, Scott continues to perform, and her visual art presentations remain extended into theater. I fact, one element of the exhibition described in in this catalogue, “Joyce Scott Kickin’ It with the Old Masters, “ is a new performance work, Virtual Reality, which was commissioned for the occasion.

Joyce-Scott 5

As a theatrical performer, Scott follows in a line of great African-American satirist in art. African-American art satire became widespread in the 1960’s, although artists used it much earlier. An irony not lost on African-American artists is that the satire of their art was developed in the nineteenth century by white propaganda cartoons that made fun of black people as shuffling, bungling jokes with scared, bulging eyes, balloon lips and claw-like hands. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin celebrated the image of the contented, innocent and intellectually impotent black man. It was an image nineteenth century America was comfortable with, and remained embedded in popular imagery well into the twentieth century: all is well with the world when the happy, fun-loving and stupid darkies stay in their place. as America grew inured to such degrading stereotypes. Buckwheat of the Little Rascals; Black Sambo, the dumb, watermelon-loving colored “boy;” and the simpleminded “darkie” servant in Gone With the Wind are a few of the degrading stereotypes of black people in the movies. Posters and cartoons showed black shoeshine boys and tap-dancing clowns, and caricatured fat black servants. One symbol of domestic harmony was the presence of the black mammy, like Aunt Jamima, to scrub the runny noses of white children. The mammy’s smart cracks, as long as she remained safely in the kitchen, made white America laugh. White adults treated her with a mixture of condescension and affection, and the children she cared for sometimes grew up and called her “nigger.” Her self-image as a stereotypical funny, fat black woman is not lost on Joyce Scoot. But rather than being exploited by it, Scott exploits it to manipulate her audiences wit satire in both the objects she creates and the uses she makes of her own body in performance.

The style and gestures of Scott’s theatrical performance extend to her fashion designs, which are also theatrical. It is as if she makes costumes for the theatre that are wearable every day. The image of Rodin’s two images of Balzac comes to mind: the nude version expresses the bare revelation of idea through body gesture (as Scott uses her body in performance), while the clothe version adds flamboyance to character. Scott’s fashion design is inseparable from her theatrical performance I that it augments her theatrical vision. Her crocheted dress (mid-seventies (left) is a costume on a white background: a top with sparse, linear images contrasted with a boldly colored skirt in asymmetrical checkered patterns. Zigzag black lines bisect the piece. The one-of-a-kind piece, accompanied by Scott-designed bangles, necklace, and earrings, is as much a party outfit as a work of art. Another mid-seventies piece s a skirt and boots outfit in leather. Inspired by Native-American mythology, the skirt and boots adopt some of the patterns, symbols and stitchery of the Native-American. Many designers make clothes inspired by Native-American patterns, but Scott uses the Native-American costume and materials to blend cultures past and present by transforming them into urban dress. Here again, Scott transforms art from a past an earlier culture into contemporary dress. Her many fashion designs from the mid-seventies through the eighties explore the integration of fashion of ancient Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe into garments to be born in urban America. Beyond exotic creations, her fashion designs celebrate the cultural origins of contemporary fashion that other designers may merely hint at. Scott’s creations reveal that folk culture is part of the essence of contemporary life and makes an artistic as well as social statement about intercultural affinity. We are drawn into an environment of stupor as the artist dangles surfaces of glistening beads that intoxicate the mind. Scott’s fashion designs are plumage for adornment, and they involve not only the body that wears them, but also the senses of both wearer and observer.

Joyce Scott is an interactive artist. Her necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and clothing tell stories, make statements, titillate, and transform the wearer’s persona. Scott’s wearable art pieces are more than accents: they have personality; they are individual; they are alive. You really do not wear them; they wear you. It is as though you are their manikin. You become one with Scott’s jewelry; you become an extension of it. Wearing one of her pieces transforms your attire from clothes to costume, no matter how subtly. Being clothed in these pieces, the wearer becomes ritual performer. An earring, a pin, a broach, a purse, or eyeglasses lend s a lift, an accent, creating an elusive but distinct air of humor and mischief.

A Joyce Scott hat, scarf, or necklace transforms you into a dramatic persona with swagger and theatricality, no matter how self0effacing you might otherwise be. Whatever else you are wearing has to meet her sartorial challenge or be overwhelmed by the presence of Scott’s adornment. No retiring whom looks good in Scott’s wearable art.

Several examples of Scott’s fashions in the present exhibition reveal that Joyce Scott’s fashion designs are forms that animate the wearer rather than the other way around. Red Street Window Installation (1982, page 20) shows four women dressed in pageantry of colors and fabric whose patterns create gestures independent of the movement of the body.

Sometimes Scott’s wearable art has no narrative or meaning other than its own sheer beauty. The necklace Chinese Panthers takes the shape of a hand, albeit with a prominent middle finger rather than a thumb. On a background of jade-colored beads that outline the face of a cat, like the composite visage of people of many colors and races. In spite of the narrative, the whole forms a beautiful symmetrical pattern, lying flat when adorning the wearer. Collar (late seventies, page 64), made of woven beads and wire, is a necklace with a coil form countered with simplified patterns. Mardi Gras Saint I (1987) is a beaded collage of abstract imagery, conjuring a colorful vision of the festival. Scott’s wearable art reveals no deliberate energy of composition. The organic forms seem randomly organized with an occasional nod to the need for orientation (the front is distinguished from the back, for example). Rather than conspicuously planned works of art, they appear to be improvisations. Indeed, the artist says that often she is guided by the inspiration of the materials and by accident. The “meaning” of the work and the placement of its parts are often dictated by technical choices. Apart from narratives, what tend to guide her arrangements are their random patterns.

The relationship of her fashion costumes and jewelry to her quiltmaking is natural. The sensibility of her costumes, indeed the aesthetic foundation of her pattern in all things =, comes from the tradition of quilts passed down from her mother and generations of quiltmakers before her. The quilts taught Scott makes are rich with textures, abound with materials, and are strident in their social and political message. Nuclear Nanny (1983-1984), for example, is about the skeletal remains of a nanny, metaphorically destroyed by the effects of racial wars. Three Generation Quilt (1983, page 15) is a highly schematic form that includes portraits from the artist’s personal history.

It is impossible to isolate Joyce Scott’s work in one medium from her work in another. As she wears her jewelry in performance, she makes sculptural environments that are like sets for the issues her performances address. Her surfaces of sculptures in beads, metal or glass, for example, shimmer with mysticism and fantasy like the surfaces of the quilts and jewelry. Sometimes the spiritual underpinnings of her work are clearly Christian, perhaps reflective of her experience in the Pentecostal Church in which she grew up. For example, The White Boy’s Gone Crazy From the ‘Jonestown Series, ‘1980) orients the cult leader in a position of crucifixion. Her art is often, political, exploring topical or racial issues or revealing cultural ironies or prejudices.

In Believe I’ve Been Sanctified (1991), [3] a large out-of-doors installation, Scott takes aim at the racial and cultural legacy of the south. Describing the work, Scott said: “for me, those enormous white columns symbolize both the antebellum South and lynch trees. I decided to turn the columns into enormous trees by covering them with beads to make them weeping willows [a glory of Charleston is its weeping willow trees], to represent tears. At the base I added 500 logs, a funeral pyre. Then I thought, ‘If you’ve got fire, its got to be burning something, maybe like a lynched figure, or a person dying, which represents the end of slavery and the beginning of a new ear, reconstruction.’ This black form, or mask, also represents cycles of racism, which haven’t changed in some places. It represents the human body but it also represents the Phoenix, always rising from its own travails, from the flames of the past.”[4]

Man Eating Watermellon

Of course, not all of Joyce Scott’s art, sculptural or otherwise, carries such a specific subtext. Many, in particular her small sculptural figures, are laden with hidden satire. The size of small dolls, these pieces arte nevertheless monumental. No statues, they arte active and alive, like effigy figures from the artist’s own spiritual world. A good example is Buddha Supports Shiva Awakening the Races (1993). Scott’s Buddha is seen not in his traditional Hindu guise, of Siddhartha the loner contemplating the fate of the universe in search of enlightenment as the gateway to Nirvana,; but, instead as a proactive Everyman, a conjurer and impresario. Clad in beads, this Buddha possesses African features rather than the Aryan-Indian traits of the original. Here Buddha balances a dancing Shiva, traditional Hindu destroyer of the world prior to each of its periods of dissolution. Mixing metaphors and expanding the range of her thought, Scott creates a Shiva who dances with veils reminiscent of Salome’s death-dance, a parallel image of foreboding. Scott takes the essence of Hinduism and expands it to a metaphor for weighing universal suffering and damnation. The implication of the sculpture is the dissatisfaction of omnipotence with the racial condition of the world. The dance is a metaphorical prelude to destruction, perhaps of all humanity.. a deeply spiritual person,. Scott makes a sculpture that posits moral and racial verities. This small sculpture is like a figurine and serpent in its individual and overall gesture., the dance posits a ludicrous association: Buddha as a black man, Shiva as dancing girl. The irony of the underprivileged miming its destiny is as humorous as it is wry. It is like tease rather than a lofty images. Pin-pricked deities Scott calls her sculptures.

Extending the ridiculous to the absurd, Scott takes the Buddha into her own backyard. Buddha Gives Baseball to the Ghetto is a hoot of an idea with a beaded benevolent Buddha weaving a limp black figure into hoop Nirvana. Less religious than whimsical, this work shows the artist toying with her universal lexicon, using recurrent themes (Buddha, race relations, religion) as interchangeable and interrelated symbols of her own humorous cosmogony.

One of the most poignant images in Scott’s arsenal of satirical sculptures is her “Cuddly Black Dick series.” The central focus of each piece is a beaded black penis. The black man as sexual effigy was in the forefront of consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement, fueled along the way by memories of thousands of guiltless black men. The black penis has been the most demonized icon in American history. The tile of each piece reveals Scott’s underlying compassion; the humor hides her pain. The “cuddly Black Dick,” glistening with beads appears benign. The gentle curvature of the form suggests the irony of the hangman’s noose: graceful but deadly. The “Cuddly Black Dick” defies mere formal interpretation through the lens of art criticism. These are not abstract forms. And neither is there any Hans Arp Surrealism here. Scott’s art confronts social and political issues of Black people through humor. In this series, her humor the fearsome black penis to bundles of iridescent “colored” beads that is at once both erect and flaccid. This series indicts through satire, but with defiance, injustice to all black people. The “Cuddly Black Dick” represents the suppressed fact that black men have been vilified as brutal rapists in American history. “When will your people stop playing the victim?’ asked the visitor to America. “When white America stops blaming us for their shame..” Yet, the Cuddly Black dicks are presented with a tease, with a wink, and a smile. Scott’s “Cuddly Black Dicks” show the black man’s dick in various states of erection. They are simultaneously repulsive for their aggressive sexual exposure, animal for their serpentine gesture, violent in their sexual aggression, yet a powerful assertion of masculinity, and scintillatingly beautiful objects to behold. Presented on pedestals under glass, each of Scott’s “Cuddly Black Dicks” represents the ultimate Whiteman’s nightmare: the potent black phallus. A tarred brute, threatening to fuck a Whiteman’s daughter. One of the series included in the present exhibition is Cuddly Black Dick III (1995), in which a young white in the form of a porcelain doll clothed in a virginal blue beaded dress, the essence of innocence, hugs and caresses a swollen, erect beaded penis that sits besides her on a wire garden bench. Outrageous you say. Perhaps.

Nevertheless, her Scott tackles a dual taboo (terrifying not because it is “unthinkable,” but because it is very “thinkable”): The male sexual fantasy of a sexually quintessential Lolita and her proposed yearning for a black cock. That’s the more literal interpretation, and we are drawn to it first because it is the most obvious. But the girl’s ostensible fantasy is merely a conduit to a deeper reality. That reality is the social fear, the nightmare, of white American mothers and fathers that such a thing could actually happen. Their great historic fear, Scott seems to say, is that their daughter, their most precious symbol of goodness and virginal purity, could be ravished by a black man, whom they perceive as pure sexual aggression without humanity. The greater historic white American fear from the ranting of the Ku Klux Klan to narratives in lurid movies, is that the girl (and the mother as well?) might actually want it. Scott’s image realizes both fears as part of the same.

The theme of the black mammy taking care of the white baby has preoccupied Scott, in part because her own mother did that for years. The artist bitterly recalls how her mother would later be abused by the children as they grew up and came to know racism. A sculpture such as No Mommy Me I (1991) explores the theme. A mammy in the form of a black draped doll holds a three-dimensional white doll aloft, while her own two-dimensional child clings to her skirt tail. No Mammy Me I reveals the extension of slavery through the black servant. The nanny draped in black is like a ghost, as is the pale child she holds aloft, and the black child is a ghost image against the mother’s skirt. These are the spirits of the past that continue to haunt our present lives.

A philosophical perception of Joyce Scott’s art is that she is preoccupied with the human condition in its splendor as well as its starkness. Yet, hers is not an art of nihilism, but of redemption. The essence of her work is not the fatalism of tragedy, but love. Even as she indicts she coaxes us all, through irony, to humor ourselves. Many of her works, such as Out of the Dry (1991) addresses the issue of self-hatred. Here a mammy cuts a baby up and is drying it on a clothesline. Scott’s kind of love may be hard to take, for it begins with an indictment of race relations, probes to the heart of bigotry, and proliferates through a plethora of prejudices and phobias that all human beings may share. But ultimately her art is about redemption, and the dream of a shared commitment to human justice and spiritual revelation.

No Mamy Me Joyce Scott

Cut the Shit (192) is a sculpture of a figure standing p[ponderously like a troubled Madonna. She stands all covered in a gown of woven rope as she holds a large black doll with a smaller white one in place of the black doll’s face. Mammy is a name for an African-American nanny. This mammy is laden with many burdensome things, including a butcher knife that sticks in her head, shards that protrude from her body, and a huge transmogrified floral object in the shape of a bulbous cross, inside of which is a deformed crucifix. The duality of the Madonna and the slave-maid-nanny is inescapable. The image conjures the association of the martyrdom of African-American women as servants of white people. I remember hearing Mahalia Jackson talking about this issue in an interview with Studs Terkel the [Radio WFMT], the Chicago talk radio host. She said she had worked as a maid for white babies whom loved her then but grew up to hate her and call her nigger. Scott’s Cut the Shit refers to that association. The black maid as martyr and victim, sacrifices her time with her own child and substitutes the white child.

In Rodney King’s Head Squashed Like a Watermelon (1991) Scott does double entendre. Rodney King was mercilessly beaten in Los Angeles, heightening racial animosity between blacks and whites, as we well know. But Scott uses the familiar incident to make two references. First, to the head of John the Baptist (King was not killed, as we know), suggesting martyrdom at the hands of un-Christian-like tormentors. Second, she refers to the negative stereotype familiar since slavery of black people as watermelon eaters. I n this simplified image she combines the longing for deliverance with the continuing prejudice of slavery.


An artist with the versatility of Joyce Scott is rare. Quiltmaker, jeweler, sculptor, printmaker, poet, singer, theatrical performer, Scott mixes an impressive variety of art ideas into a vision that is uniquely her own. She wins you with the charm and wit of her art and personality, She is always on stage, whether teasing someone she knows, singling out a stranger from the audience, or lost in the spell of her own on-stage performance. Her art titillates. Her Southern African-American roots are the fountainhead of her ideas. Art is the tool people in her family made to entertain themselves — not as products for consumption, museum display, or contemplation, but as a part of daily life, an expression of how one lived. She has carried that approach with her over a thirty-five year career as an artist. Her commitment may have begun as a need to maintain her African-American cultural heritage. It expanded further to include the values of people who are poor. Then it expanded to include the broader concept of comparative folk culture, not jut in the United States, but worldwide. Joyce Scott’s art is about the materials of contemporary anthropology. She has expanded the more familiar range of African-American Art to make it more reflective of the relationship between ancient African art traditions and the global cultural spirit of all black people. A big woman when she performs, her gestures are grand. Yet, the objects she makes are most often small. They are like icons, Kachina dolls or Ibeji figures. The potency of her work is in its power to make what is small big. She is a pioneer of a new kind of contemporary monumentality. Like the objects of a sanitaria ceremony, hers is the big magic in small arrangements. Her magical images are like candles glowing across world cultures. As such they shine on us and how we see others. Prick-teased icons with “prick” being a double entendre. Her art does not preach. She teases us to laugh at ourselves and in so doing to see through our disguises. I can think of no greater power of art.

— Keith Morrison


[1] King-Hammond, Leslie, and Sims, Lowery. Art as a Verb (exhibition catalog). Baltimore Institute College of art, 1988.

[2] Raven, Arlene. Feminist Rituals of RE-membered History: Lisa Jones, Joyce Scott, and Kathlynn Sullivan,” Women of Performance: Journal of Feminist Theory 4.17 (1988-89): 23-42.

[3] From the exhibition, “Places with a Past: New Site-specific Art in Charleston,” May-August 4, 1991. Curated by Mary Jane Jacob for the Spoleto Festival of the Arts.

[4] Joyce J. Scott: I con-no-body/I-con-o-graphy (exhibition catalog), Interview with Terrie Sultan, Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1991.

Additional references:

Gumbo Ya Ya: Anthology of Contemporary African American Women Artists/with an introduction by Leslie King-Hammond. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1995.

Joyce Scott (exhibition catalog). Raleigh, NC, City Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1993.

Leuzinger, Elsy. Africa; the Art of the Negro Peoples, Tr. Ann E. Keep. New York: Crown Publishing, 1967.

Michael Ray Charles/Joyce Scott. (exhibition catalog). West Palm Beach: Florida Atlantic University, March 1999.

Searle, Karen. “Joyce Scott: migrant worker for the Arts.” Ornament 15-4 (1992); 46-51,75.

Silberman, Robert. “Scott + Scott: Elizabeth Talford Scott and Joyce Scott.” American Craft. December 1998/January 1999. 40-45.

Sources (exhibition catalog). College Park, Maryland: University of Maryland Gallery, 1994.

Wilson, Judith. Images Concealed (exhibition catalog). San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute, 1995.

Julie L. McGee: “Keith Morrison Middle Passage”

Julie L. McGee: “Keith Morrison Middle Passage”

African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin the Caribbean America, the Caribbean, and the United States

Edited by Persephone Braham

Newark: University of Delaware Press

Copyright @ 20152015 by Rowan & Littlefield

ISBN 978-161149-537-9 (cloth : alk. Paper

ISBN 978-1-61149-538-6 (electronic)

Keith Morrison

Middle Passage

By Julie L. McGee

"Middle Passage" oil on canvas 36 X 40" 210

“Middle Passage”
oil on canvas
36 X 40″

The exhibition Keith Morrison: Middle Passage highlights a selection of oil paintings and large-scale watercolors executed over the last decade by the Jamaican-born artist. Deeply mythical and occasionally ironic, Morrison’s exquisite paintings offer both sensual delight and compositional shrewdness. Settled and unsettled territories, unseen tragedy implied trauma, verdant and enigmatic groves and waterways proliferate his work. Neither astral nor wholly chimerical, Morrison’s imaginary geographies are grounded – that is to say, firmly embedded in the human scale and the artist’s memory of place and sensory experiences.

Engaging personal, local and global concerns, Morrison’s visual language includes a vernacular that is quintessentially diasporic, if not nomadic. Jamaica-born, professionally educated and active in the United Sates where he is black yet not African American, Morrison once referred to his peripatetic life as one of perpetual outsiderness: home is neither precisely here or there, but in-between places and spaces. This is reflected in his formal, pictorial search for “ a new kind of space, real and metaphorical, where the human soul lays hidden”(1). Analogies to the African Americas, lived experiences are pigmented by individual and historical realities; considered obliquely they become tropological and function as artistic wellsprings. As Morrison notes, it is the “pursuit of the abstract spiritual deep inside the reality (2).

The pictorial and iconographic clues in Morrison’s Middle Passage works invite the viewer to situate diaspora – the black or Caribbean diaspora – within a larger framework of human endeavor, freeing it from reductive ideological interpretations associated with birthplace and ethnicity. The work thus resists identification with the subaltern and renders visible then universal, historic phenomena of cultural mélange, in which “blackness” of the Middle Passage encompasses whiteness. The Jamaica Morrison is drawn to pictorially is one of a past visual memory, a retrospective condition in which trauma, tragedy, anxiety, the banal, and comic relief are expressed equally. Responsive to past and present histories, influenced by music, literature, and his physical environs, Morison describes his process as “more intuitive than intellectual.” Yet, formally, his expertly constructed oil paintings and meticulously developed watercolors evolve from a finely honed studio practice that includes preparatory drawings, multiple layers of glazes, and painterly patience.

A recent suite of works by Morrison, forcefully evocative yet reductive in form, gives this exhibition its title: Middle Passage. At once a reference to the cross-Atlantic passage that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas in elaborate trade route – Europe, Africa, the Americas – the significance of Middle Passage is redoubled in the context of Morrison’s paintings that favor an iconography of cultural mélange.

In Middle Passage (2010) and Middle Passage II (2010) (Figures 1.1 and 1.2) Morrison uses a trapezoid – a favored form — to anchor his composition and open the door to narratives of horror: our view is below, within a ship’s cargo hull. Submerged in blue-black darkness we look up toward criss-crossed beams, wind-filled sails, and perched scavenger birds. The central, trapezoidal opening jostles with the rectangular composition, as though ion a rocking motion, emphasizing the watery passage.

"The Tango" oil on canvas 40 X 44" 2011

“The Tango”
oil on canvas
40 X 44″

Morrison uses perspective and point of view to evoke emotion. A hallmark of his style, these devices are both disorienting and seductive, as in The Tango (2010, Figure 1.3) and Moment of Truth (2009). In Middle Passage, Middle Passage II, Slave Block (2009, Figure 1.4), and Atlantic (2009) Morrison’s perspective draws viewers into the compositions, where they become witness to a history that cannot be denied. As with Scourge of the Predator (2003) or Sound the Knell Slowly (2001), we sense the trauma but do not see the tragedy directly, though it is not necessarily unknown. Both Scourge of the Predator (2003), inspired by he Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Sound the Knell Slowly bring death and Christianity into incongruous relation. The former centers on apparitions of death and the latter slyly interrogates the place of Christianity in the history of blackness through its inclusion of three crucified black figures.

Sound the Knell Slowly" watercolor 30 X 40" 2000

Sound the Knell Slowly”
30 X 40″

Morrison’s paintings provide keen sensory experiences, whether the subject is macabre, melodic, or macaronic, and his narrative interest is expansive. The exhibition’s title, Middle Passage, positions the artist’s work in a strategic conjuncture: that of Africa, the Americas/Caribbean, and Europe. Morrison has long savored both the comedy and the tragedy wrought by cultural encounter – the malapropisms or slippages within hotpotch cultures that are descendants of colonial slavery. While the verdant greenery and varietals of Morrison’s botanical imagery are largely imaginary, the objects that populate his compositions are usually real, in some case objects that he owns: musical instruments, Yoruba ibeji figures, wooden snakes, and a parrot 3. Yet these objects are not studio props, since Morrison does not work from models; he works instead from memory and visual imprints. This process, which favors creativity over authenticity, allows the artist to interlock the forms in a way that is intrinsic to his compositions. These in turn support the artist’s interest in counterpoint – that is, contrasting color, conflicting shapes, and visual misdirection.

In many of Morrison’s compositions, humans coexist with animals, reptiles, and animated icons. Described by the scholar Renee Ater as “human substitutes in fantasy tableaux,” Morrison’s animated icons are cultural locators that help advance the artist’s visual fable. 4. As with many great poets and novelists, Morrison’s development and use of narrative imagery moves allegory beyond the symbolic. Isis, Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic, and fertility and protector of the dead, is cradled by an ibeji-like figure in Slow Boat (2003), Figure 1.5); a playing card dances across a guitar in African Tango (2000, Figure 1.6); and in Market II (2004, Figure 1.7) a wild, blue horse conjurers a cartload of vegetables.

"Slave Block" oil on canvas 30 X 24" 2009

“Slave Block”
oil on canvas
30 X 24″

Morrison’s playful interest in perspective and planar juxtaposition emerged in the late 1960’s and 1970’s alongside his interest in abstraction. Indeed, Morrison’s artistic evolution includes alternative currents: periods of pure abstraction and then figuration 5. These forces are fully merged in his recent work and help activate the composition. The figurative imagery retains the language of Morrison’s early abstraction and both are enabled by the panoramic view. Abstraction is a constant throughout his work, at times unexpectedly -– Morrison routinely uses recognizable objects as abstract, compositional elements. The trapezoid shape that doubles as the hull opening in Middle Passage exemplifies this technique. In Sound the Knell Slowly a drumstick doubles as a halo for one of the crucified. An upright drum serves as staging in both Sound the Knell Slowly and The Tango, and a supine guitar functions similarly [as in] African Tango and Katrina (2009, Figure 1.8). In Katrina the guitar becomes the watery City Bowl of posthurricane New Orleans, the playground of sharks and souls of the drowned.

"Katrina" oil on canvas 40 X 30" 2008

oil on canvas
40 X 30″

Morrison’s recent paintings are more restrained but epically poetic. The complicated approach to abstraction and figuration found in watercolor such as African Tango is supplanted by beguiling surface depth. The interlocking elements animating the surface of African Tango becomes penetrating tendrils, rooted in layers of glaze, in Sentinel (2008) and Hawk (2009). For Morrison, the specter of death hovers in and near bodies of water, especially rivers and ponds. The aqueous realm, featured in many of Morrison’s paintings – Sentinel, bayou, Hawk, enigma (2010, figure 1.9), and others – is partly mythic and partly real. Like the pictorial space the artist conjures the watery abyss is a metaphorical space, one where human souls lie hidden, and emblematic of the spiritual deep within the artist’s abstract forms.


Keith Morrison, e-mail to the author, September 5, 2010
Ibeji figures, distinctive of Yoruba art and culture of Nigeria, are carved statues or spirit figures. For Morrison’s use of the ibeji, see Rene Ater, Keith Morrison (Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 2005), 74, 81.
Ibid, 69
As Morrison notes, “I have pursued challenges between figuration, abstraction and narrative for most of my painting career.” Morrison, e-mail to the author, and Morrison, interviews by the author, over a period of a year.

— Dr. Julie. McGee,

Author, art historian; Chief Curator, University of Delaware Museums

Keith Morrison: “Magical Visions”

Morrison: “Magical Visions”

University of Delaware Museums, January 2012

Magical Visions

Curated by Keith Morrison

Essay by Keith Morrison

Terry Adkins, Sonya Clark, Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Barkley L. Hendricks, Kalup Linzy, Odili Odita, Karyn Olivier, Faith Ringgold, William T. Williams.

Magical Visions brings together ten artists who have made significant differences in American art over the last half century. Their ideas emerged at various times, reflecting changes in the art world and remain important today. Their works include assemblage, fibre, painting, photography, printmaking, quiltmaking, sculpture, and video with performance. Each of them has pioneered imagery independent of traditional art theories through their own visual perceptions, which are sometimes formally elusive, hence the title “Magical Visions.”

Terry Akins, activist, artist, commentator, musician, and poet, has been working in a variety of art media for more than twenty years. Adkins is like a shaman, playing formal and improvised instruments in ways that mesmerize and dramatize and ultimately expressing imagery about the African-American African spirit. His work includes installation concepts with sculpture, performance photography, poetry and, as noted, music. Often his work is collaborative, joining with other artists to perform, ritualistic and ceremonial environments. His art seeks to immortalize cultural icons and to replay historic occasions and associations especially about the African American past. His mission: to elevate or restore significant cultural and political icons who have affected the African American legacy to their rightful place in history.

Adkins’ art engages audience participation, sometimes with a group, sometimes solo. His art is essentially conceptual and minimal, seeking the most salient means to identify and symbolize his image. He researches his subject, establishes historic context and select or create objects and emblems that signify their meaning. Sometimes he presents his idea through photographs, alone or with objects to create an idea. At other times he adds objects and instruments to performance of music or verse he writes or plays. In the manner of the ancient carrier of traditions and messages, Adkins is a purveyor of truth through metaphor. There is no stylistic look to objects in his work, but a craftsmanship that refines found or manufactured objects in a way that brings to them a singular spirituality that makes their historic significance live again. As a musician, drumming, playing flute, saxophone or other, his music is refined, with tones echoing spirituals, blues, Jazz, and a complexity of contemporary sounds from the music hall to the street, from the formal to the vernacular. He may write verse to recite by himself, of in collaboration, sometimes with his audience, often improvised or spontaneous. He makes icons of scared places (Black minstrel material, pulpits, jail cells); historic Black people –Black and white (John Brown, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison); or great musicians (Thelonius Monk, Billy Holiday, Max Roach, Ludwig Van Beethoven)

The photos in the exhibition, entitled Bishop, reference Catholicism (the artist’s roots), which Adkins renewed in a year living in Rome near Vatican City. They are about the scared and the profane, the hierarchy of government of perceived corrupt of the papacy. These images also appear to be related to priest-like musical and religious ceremony in African-American culture. As in many of his works, Terry Adkins uses the cultural lens in his African-American soul to explore universal stories with empathy and compassion.

Sonya Clark has come to international prominence over the last 20 years. Working from a foundation of a fibre artist, Clark has developed an extensive range of work including a variety of materials including textiles, glass, beads, amulets, textiles, cloth, found objects, plastics, photographs and other mementos, which she presents in two or three dimensional form, as wall hangings and environmental installations. Her art links objects and surfaces into imagery of material culture. She makes forms and environments of memory from found objects, fragments of her own past, and of her ancestral and cultural ancestry. A pioneer in elevating craft to the highest level of art, her works connect the act of art making to the experience of ceremony, to the occult, to cultural memory, and to reclamation of culture. Clark’s works are sometimes freestanding icons, sometimes environmental experiences or objects of adornment. Her work recaptures memory as much as it relives it, transforming imagery of the past into metaphors for the present. Clark’s art is steeped in human history with African history at its core, but no less respectful of European history. Her art manifests the importance of the hand as the maker of object and the purveyor of communication between people, and along with the brain, the dual tool central to visual anthropology. Her work is highly crafted. Objects and or found are hewn, woven, polished and refined with her hand with a sensibility or high deference for the historic ritual of making and transmittal of culture, not only as information, but as art as sacrament. Among the prominent themes she has explored is communication tools, including beads, and amulets as symbols of current and historic connectedness. Networks of transmissions and reception are exemplified in her work through systems that relate to their use in ancient African cultures. Another theme is pairs, in which she uses eye glasses, and images of twins and Ibejji to celebrate two-ness or bifurcation. She has done work around the theme of heads and wigs, sometimes using complex mathematical formulas to develop patterns of headdress. Another theme is roots, having to do with ancestry, but developed within imagery of human cells, suggesting human growth, bifurcation, ancestry, branch structures, systems, physiology, and technology. Another theme is Shared cultural identity: African American flag, Ghanaian Kente Cloth, hand-woven weave structures on a European loom, or a gele (African woman’s headdress). The theme hands is her homage to the skill of making. Yet another of Clark’s themes, the comb, one of the most ancient of human tools, holds a special significance to human history, which Clark memorializes through its role in the African legacy. Striking a careful balance between exploiting its formal attributes and recognizing its significance to culture and identity, she explores the complex psychological uses of the comb as a tool for hairstyling, cultural heritage, racial identity, gender politics, standards of beauty, vanity, attitude, and intimidation, but also of fear and pain for hair found difficult for the comb. In this exhibition Clark presents two digital prints about hair, one of her most explored themes. One of these works, “Parting,” is a series of six digital prints with a human had parting hair. “The part,” suggests division, change, togetherness, and uncertainty. Sonya Clark extends concepts of craft into forms that are allegorical and tell a metaphorical tale through the trails of human history.

Mel Edwards developed sculpture that infuses abstract art with issues of African ancestry, slavery and African American experience. Much of Edwards’ inspiration comes from his American experiences and directly from Africa, where he spends several months each year working as a sculptor in Senegal. Edwards is known for his large public sculpture, smaller freestanding works, and the kinetic “Rockers” series. His large-scale works include “Mt. Vernon” and “Homage to Billie Holiday and the Young Ones at Soweto”. He is also formidable printmaker.

In the evolution of metal sculpture from about the first third of the twentieth century one could consider three important directions in to which Edwards’ work relate yet stands apart, which are the sculptures of Julio Gonzales, Henry Moore, and David Smith: Gonzales, for his pioneering drawing in space with metal; Moore for abstract metal sculpture with psychological allegory; and David Smith for enlarging totemic abstract forms that merge raw metal with manufactured form. Mel Edwards works sits among this group, involving some of their ideas, but taken in a different direction. Edwards’s art brings to reality the idea of subject matter in abstraction. The paradigm of modern sculpture had been the evolution of pure (non-objective) abstraction from Brancusi to, say, David Smith; and abstract figuration from Picasso to Henry Moore. The latter, of course, made important foray into abstract sculpture as much matter, but even he relied on the echo of his figuration for the basis of his abstraction. Mel Edwards’ abstractions are freed of figurative reference. This sculpture animates the cultural anthropology of the utilitarian object. He has pioneered the concept of the psychology of the image being carried through cultural memory latent in objects and tools. Edward’s forms are images of implements that suggest cultural struggle, echoes of harrowing bondage, cruelty, and toil. His sculpture transforms a general paradigm of abstract form in space to a more specific awareness of cultural iconography in space. His images, in substance and psychology, has the look of iron. Typically he makes his art from a variety of metal objects, including chains, locks, hammers and railroad slices, and charms, transforming them in them into emblems of an African ancestral past and its permutation through the Americas, North and South. His art conjures implements of slavery into abstract iconic forms that express the cultural spirit of the African international journey. Perhaps no better source of Edwards’ development of implements as sculpture are to be found than in his “Lynch fragments.” These are small sculptures informed by the history of brutality to Black people in America. These are welded metal wall reliefs, developed by the artist in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to 1974, and 1978 to the present. There are now more than 200 pieces in the series. These sculptures, most often less than a foot tall, are hung on the wall at eye level. The essence of these works lies in their transformation into pure abstraction while retaining the spirituality of their origin as utility and the spirituality of historic brutality for which they were used. Edwards uses a variety of metal objects including hammer heads, scissors, locks, chains and railroad splices as the essential materials for these works. These implements and tools are forged, welded, bent and stretched, and the process of transforms them into a new kind of sculpture.

Sam Gilliam is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. He burst on the scene of American painting early in the 1960’s. His landmark paintings floated the canvas from the stretcher, making color and form ethereal. Over the years he has expanded that concept; giving pigment visceral solidity and blurring the lines between painting and sculpture; adding collage elements that in ways that change the concept of space; charging color with scintillating light so that they seem a chimera; raking and building from the floor; making architectural structures and environments; and exploring forms that move off the surface in rhythmic and polyrhythmic pattern and counterpoint. Working amidst Washington Color School artists, such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Gene Davis Gilliam’s painting became distinguished from theirs as he freed the canvas from the surface of the wall and made it flow freely in space. Like many of his contemporaries, Gilliam applied paint to his canvas in ways that maintained flatness of the pictorial surface. However, he wrinkles, tears, creases and rumples his draped forms, varies the thickness of his pigments, with many tools to trowel, rake and spray his surfaces. Sam Gilliam brought to American painting an entirely new concept of space and surface and a dimension of media between painting and sculpture. From the early 60’s through the mid-seventies Gilliam explored draped paintings. In the ‘Seventies and Eighties he explored painterly construction, adding other materials, such as wood, plastic and metal to the surfaces, combining them with pigment, and sometimes returning the image to the wall. At other times during this period he made large wall paintings with layers of pigment painted and scraped with a restless hand exploring imagery that moved within the flat surface. In the late ‘Eighties and Nineties he made a series of large public pieces that were sculptural, combining metals and plastics with pigment for work tom be sown in or out of doors. From then until now he has explored the illusion of the tactile object, making forms that drape or flow, often with transparency, so that the space though tangible is disorienting. Gilliam’s art has long had a look of chimera, where what you think you see is not always what you get. Like his earliest Color School peers he is a colorist, but he separated from them with his use of using glittering surfaces, scintillating textures, and fractured light. His work in the present exhibition is an image that involves the architectural planes of the walls and floors of the gallery with the organic space of the draped canvas. Sam Gilliam’s art is at once visceral and cerebral. Sam Gilliam’s work has changed the paradigm of painting, extending it into sculptural and environmental space, and through complex surfaces and color, created a visual chimera that alternates imagery from the tactile to the mystical form.

Barkley L. Hendricks came to national attention as a painter in the early Nineteen Seventies when his work was included in the Whitney exhibition of African American art. His imagery spans a wide range of people and places, of different races, ethnicity, and locations. His African American portraits create a new kind of portraiture, with clothes and jewelry that tell of the hip urban life, bling and attitude. A Hendricks’s painting is a fierce, uncompromising statement about urban African-American style, guile, and ego. Using the dual eye of painter and photographer, Hendricks paints portraits and landscapes. His works in this exhibition are portraits. Hendricks figures typically appear to be oblivious to art or art history, like they are posing for the camera, revealing attitude more than inner self. However, his paintings are highly structured and sometimes conceptually formal and compositionally reductive. “Icon for My Man Superman,” in the present exhibition, is a case in point. The figure forms a curvilinear abstraction in silhouette against a flat background – and it also is in front of a faux frame, becoming a picture in front of a picture. The image of Superman burst from the stomach of the figure like an abstract explosion in space. Nevertheless, the initial effect of the whole is of a defiant black man posing in a superman shirt. What’s so compelling about a Hendricks painting is that it may be perceived on two levels; as a sophisticated composition and a social statement. The statement is about the irrelevance of black people to superman, reflecting Bobby Seale’s statement : “Superman never saved any Black People.“

Hendricks’s makes a camera-conscious painting of a black man with the affect of an image outside the archetypal poses of art history. His other print in the exhibition, “Iconic Dexter,” is quite abstract, an image in three interrelated tones, simplified into poster-like form that belies its compositional complexity. Hendricks people aren’t defiant; instead they are comfortable in their skin, showing their world and their style. His perceptions are ultra-keen as he captures the essence of his people through how they pose, how they gaze, or how they dress. Hendricks brings a cool street-wise style to the look of the portrait. He has pioneered art that anticipated issues being explored by a younger generation of artists such as Michelene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, Jeff Sonhouse, and Kahinde Wiley. Barkley L. Hendricks’s works show him to be one of the seminal painters of the last three decades.

Kalup Linzy has come to wide attention in American art over the last decade with his seminal videos, first shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem, then at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and Brooklyn museums. A multidisciplinary artist, Linzy works in video, music, painting, and live performance. His work is satirical, bawdy, thrilling and beyond categorization. His mining of stereotypical black characters, and queer life has expanded art and merged it with entertainment.

Linzy’s best-known work is a series of video art pieces satirizing the tone and narrative approach of television soap opera. He performs most of the characters in his videos himself, many of them in drag. He also performs many of the same characters on stage. Through his characters he explores issues such as vanity, family neurosis, racial stereotype, and materialism. Whereas the meaning of the subject matter art of other excellent artists can be difficult to access, Linzy’s is the opposite, engaging his audiences’ ability to identify with his characters and narrative. The African American experience, good, bad and comical, is at the essence of his art. From his early study of visual communication art (rather than filmmaking) Linzy learned to focus on popular media and narratives. his work relates to a tradition of African American TV humorists, such as Flip Wilson, Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, and filmmaker Tyler Perry. Linzy’s work is distinguished by the clarity of his wit, his aesthetic, the poetry of his narrative and a sense of sexual confusion and role reversal. Like the Black comedians mentioned, it is through wit that he draws in his audience. He creates characters like his sister Lucretia and his grandmother, both of which he plays himself. This is performance art of the self in many guises, telling as much about the characters as about our social mores. His aesthetic is not the one -liner but like the short story: his charters tell about events, and responds to situations or fantasized aspirations. Typically they put themselves in situations that fuels the audiences’ mirth. Linzy arranges his own lighting and effects for the shooting of his videos, and creates his own mascara for each of his characters in exquisite detail. The strategy of his tableau is self-reflection and unconscious self-deprecation. Linzy’s characters are confident in their delusion and oblivious to the humor they reveal. Linzy’s art is the duality of the vulnerability of his characters and their absurd conceit . Linzy’ “sister Lucretia” reminds one of Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine” in the TV shows of the seventies, yet there are significant differences between them. Wilson satirized black women through Geraldine but his own persona was separate. Ditto the late Red Foxx and Tyler Perry who use Black culture as a basis for satire on TV and in film. However, Linzy is not afraid to reveal himself through his characters: it is not simply a satire of Lucretia but of Linzy himself in drag. Linzy‘s art is not like a TV show or a movie, rather, it bridges a gap between imagery of popular culture and imagery of art, and is a seamless relationship between made-for-TV and performance art. His art also breaks down the barrier between an artistically informed eye and the perception of the non-art-conscious person on the street. His work not only brings Black pop culture to performance art, it brings new audiences as well. Yet, as his art entertains it also disturbs. At the center of our discomfiture may be the chimera of his cross-dressing: we enjoy the voyeuristic experience it provides, but are uncertain of the persona and sexuality it reveals and challenges us to examine in ourselves.

Odili Odita emerged onto the art scene in the 1990’s making paintings, photomontages, objects and conceptual imagery in a variety of materials as he searched to create an art of new cultural fusion. His work in this exhibition exemplifies his abstract voice in a time when many thought abstract art a revered but closed book. Odita reopened its pages to explore new strategies for abstract meaning. His paintings are of zigzag patterns and color variations that tease and surprise. He explores a visual language of forms that pulsate with staccato colors that vibrate like musical rhythms. His paintings echo different environments, yet elude specificity. His paintings, sometimes large sometimes installations, have moved the concept of abstract art from formal analysis, expression or reductivism, into a realm of mass cultural association. An intercultural liminalism is at the center of Odita’s abstractions. As has been often noted, Odita was born in Africa, grew up in the US, where his father is an African art historian, and studied art in some of the best institutions in the land. And has also been often noted, his work seeks to synthesize his cultural duality, involving imagery of African patterns, US and world pop culture, fashion, advertisement, mass media, television bytes, and science fiction. An important issue at the core of his painting is an irony of self-identification through stereotype. His work seems futuristic and scientific, but at the same time temporal and personal. His imagery reminds you of Madison Avenue and at the same time of Timbuktu. His music-inspired rhythms span continents, may be just as easily associated with Philip Glass or Miles Davis as with Fela Kuti or Salif Keita. This trans-continental vision is not sterilized into “objectivity,” or cultural avoidance, but is the vision of an artist whose perception explores specific cultural codes – Kente cloth, tropical colors, African patterns, persistence of rhythm through the lens of the Black experience – developed from a fundamentally African platform. Yet his imagery isn’t parochial or ethnic, but a reinterpretation of symbols in a way that reveals them to be metaphysical, like codes in a new cosmogony. Odita’s art reflects the pulse of the African landscape discharging its energy into cyberspace. His palette changes with moods or personal visual intention more than from formal visual logic. Yet, if his formal choices are personal, his imagery is identifiably public. He is a highly personal artist whose imagery reveals a universally shared mnemonic. Odita’s art reflects the pulse of the African landscape discharging its energy into cyberspace. His palette changes with moods or personal visual intention more than from formal logic. His visual choices are personal yet his imagery is identifiably public, like a magical deception: a highly personal artist whose imagery reveals a universally shared mnemonic. Odita’s art is not about the formalist issues Kenneth Noland or Barnett Newman, nor the optical illusions of, say, Bridget Riley or Victor Vassarely, although his work is informed by all of those. Conceptually, his work may be closer to Rothko, finding mood and a sense of place in abstraction. His visual codes form a new international cultural synthesis and a framework where people of different cultures and classes may find a common aesthetic. His art is about the ability of the individual to identify his/her world through commonly shared cross- cultural associations.

Karyn Olivier is a conceptual artist whose work has come to prominence over the last decade. Her media are sculpture, installation, public works, photography, and video through which she explores social interaction with familiar objects and spaces. Her work involves changing character of intimacy as it fluctuates between a personal and a social experience.

Olivier’s work, which borders on a relationship between crafted and found objects, elicit nostalgia, sentiment, and historical memory. They are architectural in the sense that they inspire an appreciation of functionality and understanding of new kinds of space. Although her objects are identifiable, each work a bears a sense of abstraction in how it rearrange our space perception beyond its literal reality. Some of her works are installations of objects (e.g., toys, playgrounds, fences) . At other times she makes videos of the urban language (e.g., bill boards, signs, buildings). Often in her work there are social contrasts and abrupt transitions: industrial to rural, rich to poor, refined to shabby, all positing experiences of psychological and sociological differences, changes or growth. This is also shown in the atmosphere of the environment she: light to dark, day to night or natural to artificial light. Olivier’s work is often about dwelling: how and where people live, and in the contrasts in the dwellings and furnishings that form the spaces they occupy or make for themselves. Her works reinterprets space and objects, making furniture architecture, trash decoration, or kitsch icon. Her exterior installations such as swings, carousels, have a sense of child’s play, yet are like precursors to adulthood. It is as if they were foundations for civilization created from the found objects, improvisation and vernacular cultures. Olivier’s sculptures are meticulously crafted and engineered: furniture is well made and fitted to architectural environments, playground swings and shoots are well designed, machines such as carousels work properly. Her aesthetic is less about what is discarded and more about imaginative recycling, beginning perhaps with the skills learned from childhood play. Her sense of the city, whether she takes us into it through a video or across a playground, is perceived in her oeuvre as building through play. Her work is about the spaces and objects that form urban anthropological evolution. A sense of time is a significant catalyst in her work: child’s play to adulthood; transformation from the basic to the complex; objects recycled from one utility to another; things transformed from new to old; forms evolving from detritus to the precious from precious. Karyn Olivier’s art is an ecological evolution through time and space.

Olivier’s work in the present exhibition is five photographs showing aspects of urban dwelling. In “Double Sided” we see identical houses side by side, a duplication and anonymity yet subtly suggesting by their lack of conspicuous manicure separate individuality within. Her “Favelas” show the density of the teaming inner city, underscored by the wood slab attached (although part of the photographically) to the side, an image of the dilapidated inner city. “Black Sculptures” show the persistence of African imagery and the maintenance of dignity in the picket fence and garden even in a limited and perhaps inappropriate space.

Faith Ringgold, began her artistic career more than 50 years ago as a painter and is one of America’s most renowned artists. Over that time she has done paintings about her life experiences, travels, the Civil rights movement and a great variety of issuers in our time. Ringgold has been a forceful voice for feminism over the last four decades. Her American People paintings (1963–67) and Black Light series (begun in 1967) sought to examine how traditional color values could be modified for black subjects. From there she explored traditions of “women’s work” in fabric, first in collaboration with her late mother and then in her Story Quilts, which have become her signature statement.

Her work includes textiles, sewn fabric, weaving, quilting, embroidery, beadwork and other kinds of crafts. She has written and illustrated more than 17 children’s books, and has engaged with childhood and adult education in schools, museums and other institutions. Her books such as “Tar Beach,” “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky,” “The Dream of Martin Luther King,” and “Cassie’s Word Quilt,’ tells stories to capture the imagination of children and adults alike. Issues of child’s play, naiveté, intuitive tendencies, and raw experiences permeate her work. Ringgold, painter, qultmaker, author, and educator is a storyteller. She came to prominence during the Civil rights ear of the ‘sixties, with ionic paintings such as “Die,’ expressing the violence and turmoil of race relations. She has remained committed to investigation of issues of race in art, including illuminating the color white from her palette for a period of time. Ringgold is a narrative painter, telling allegories in forms that are inventive, sometimes provocative or strident at other times highly personal and somber. Her work is not didactic or preachy, but allegorical. Although born and bred in Harlem, New York, Ringgold’s work has always shown a connectedness to the African American south, through some of its vernacular narratives. And so the transition in her work from painting to quiltmaking is seamless since the latter is the more historic medium of visual art in the African American south, especially among women. Joining the long tradition of African-American quiltmakers, Ringgold makes painted story quilts, combing painting, quilted fabric and storytelling. Her work tells stories of today as much as of the past. Yet, quiltmaking before Ringgold had been essentially an art outside of painting, and considered more as a (secondary) craft. Ringgold has brought quiltmaking foursquare into the concept of painting and in so doing merges a stream of African American culture with issues of contemporary art. During slavery when education was outlawed and writing denied Black people, the African American quilt became the source of Black history. Ringgold’s work picks up on that tradition in new dimensions. Her work tells stories, often historical, sometimes, personal, with an irony revealed through complex changes in pictorial space and tension between modernist pigment surfaces and gestures, and traditional techniques and pictorial arrangements. Ringgold’s work also retains a sense of play, childlike charm and simplicity that suggest freedom, never naiveté, even as her imagery is sometimes drawn like by a naïf. “Subway Graffiti,” her work in the present exhibition, is of a population of just about every kind of person, every race, color, size and status, all seemingly posing for a camera shot. Made of a complex arrangement of squares and grids, “Subway Graffiti” is also an abstract pattern or rhythms and scintillating glimpses of light resulting in shifts of perception.

William T. Williams has been at the forefront of American abstraction since the late 1960’s and remains one of the most important artists of our time. He has developed form and color from perception rather than from formalism. He invents his own iconic images and makes variations on them in shape and color, sometimes creating images like visual anagrams and orthographic encoding. Over the last four decades his work has taken several distinct shifts, but an overarching world view of iconic abstract and variation remains at its core. His paintings of the sixties and seventies explored iconic forms from the center. In his paintings of that time, what at first appears to be a central diamond shape or rhombus is never really that, but a rhomboid(trapezoid or kite shape), ever varying and often augmented by another relating rhomboid in a different color or a negative form, completing the vertical appearance of the whole and revealing it to be a larger but fractured rhomboid, which, seen diagonally, becomes a rectangle. Spiraling forms weave in and out, locking the center to the outer most rectangular border that forms the edge then spring back in bombardment. The fracturing of these forms changes the space, so while the whole is a complexity of rhomboids, its parts break the picture plane into complex dimensions of space. William’s art suggests energy gravitating from a central core, like nuclear fission, to edges or boundaries from which they reverberate (i.e., a rhomboid exploding within a parallelogram). Energy released from the center returns to the core and back to the edge in a continuum. His was a new kind of kinetic energy in painting with complexities of visual energy, ever evolving, never allowing our eye to stabilize the image as a whole. His work would change markedly in the ensuing decades while retaining a foundation of the iconic image created through Complex visual fission. William’s paintings of the seventies explored shifting planes with colors and lines dissecting one another and moving in counterpoint. In the Eighties the shapes become more organic and the space deeper. A great complexity of what could be mistaken for patterns come to prominence in this period of his work. But more than patterns they are cultural notations: music notations, African symbols, and Islamic calligraphy reinterpreted into a new holistic gestural language. In the late Eighties-Nineties we see William’s work take another dramatic direction as the forms become more three dimensional. The central rhomboid becomes conical, circular shapes become spherical, spiraling movement of explosions, adding to the work humor and a cartoon-like drama to abstraction, which reveal a new kind or random structure resulting from the explosion of order, like a kind of quantum physics. The new century found Williams bringing more graphic gesture to the fore, sublimating explicit shapes and substituting a color field aura. His works on paper in this exhibition are excellent examples of this phase of the artist’s work. Now the solid forms are transformed into filters, their solidity implied beneath like visual silence, as the graphic gestures play freely, and you sense that the whole would fall apart without that implied beneath. The gestures include imagery such as West African symbols, fauna, music, graffiti, Asian, and Islamic calligraphy, imagery the artist has explored in his work over many years. With an intellectual discipline of steel and abstract imagination, William T. Williams constructs complex geometry to bare the spiritual essence of his imagery and to make some of the strongest, most original and beautiful paintings of our time.

In keeping with the mandate of the gallery, the artists are of African American or African descent. Each is not only among the best African American artists, but among the very best artists of any race, ethnicity or nationality worldwide. Each is highly sophisticated, well informed about relationships of their work to art history and to contemporary art. Each one has brought a new dimension into the dominant cultural parameters of contemporary art. The title of the exhibition, “Magical Visions,” supports the idea that the work of each of these artists springs from perceptive originality and joins the established visual conventions each of these artists knows so well. By perceptive I mean a personal set of choices, which though well informed of established norms, develops outside of the prevailing art conventions that attract the artists. These are not “outsider” artists in the sense of being indifferent to conventions. Their perceptions are neither reactionary nor rebellious, but in each case, in different ways, artists whose works are borne from a freely confident search for originality by pushing boundaries of contemporary art. Their ideas are attuned to vanguard art theories and directions of our time, but bring to the table new dimensions of image making. They bring to their works new dimensions to art that is known by adding ideas which though often parallel, have not been focused upon by prior conventional art analysis. There may be a temptation to conclude that there is something inherently African American about this, but if that is true I cannot substantiate it. What I can say clearly is that ten of the most original points of view, developed apart from the conventions of our time are to be seen in the work of these artists. Their art reveals that some of the best African American artists have expanded or shifted the visual paradigm of contemporary art. Although certainly not alone in this venture, their works have added to the vocabulary of art, so that what was essentially a Euro-American paradigm a short half century ago has evolved, in no small measure by the work of these artists, into a more global concept, making contemporary art more reflective of the cultural heterogeneity of our time.


Adkins, Terry: email to Keith Morrison

Binstock, Jonathan: Sam Gilliam a Retrospective, University of California Press, 2006

Brenson, Michael: “Studio Museum in Black Art of the 60’s,” New York Times, May 31, 1985

Campbell, Mary Schmidt: Red and Black to D, Studio Museum, 1982

Carvalho, Denise: NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, Fall/ Winter, 2000

Clark, Sonya: email to Keith Morrison

Cotter, Holland: New York Times, “A Star is Born,” March 25, 2005

Cotter, Holland: New York Times, Art Review, Nov. 16, 2001

David C. Driskell Center: William T. William, Variations on a Theme, 2010

Dodd, Lois: “Unpainetrly Painter; Transforming Sculptor,” New York Times, March 31, 1996

Lewis, Samella S: African American Art and Artists, University of California Press, 2003, p210.

Olivier, Karyn: email to Keith Morrison

Oguibe, Olu: BOMB Magazine, issue# 89, Fall 2004

Ruble, Casey: “Kalup Linzy,” Art in America, March 1, 2009

Schoomaker, Trevor: Birth of the Cool Barkley L Hendricks, Nasher Museum, Duke University, 2008

Simpson, Ashley: “Linzy-Franco Collaboration,” Art in America, July 7, 2011

Skov Holt, Steven and Skov Holt: Mara: Manufactured, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, NYC, 2008

Smith, Roberta: “Melvin Edwards, Sculptures, 1964-2010,” New York Times, Oct. 15, 2010

Trescott, Jacqueline: “Sam Gilliam: An Ever-Changing Force,” Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2011

Wright, Tillett: “Notes from the underground,” New York Times, June 30, 2011

YouTube Play: “Wit de Churen,” August 5, 2006

YouTube: “Conversation Wit de Churen,” May 20, 2008

YouTube: Kalup Linzy “Proud Mary/James Franco,” May 21, 2010

YouTube: “Faith Ringgold: “The Last Story Quilt”

YouTube: William T. Williams

Keith Morrison: “Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound”

Morrison: “Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound”
Catalogue, essay, National Gallery of Art, Kingston, Jamaica, 2008

Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound

By Keith Morrison

The Curator’s Eye III consists of art by 15 artists, four of whom live abroad. I call the exhibition “Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound” because the media the artists use involve dimensions that extend forms of visual forms of art. The exhibition involves film, TV and video projections, room installations, interactive art, along with paintings, photographs; prints and sculptures. It is an exhibition with a variety of ceremonial themes to be found in Jamaican art, reflecting a dynamism from which Jamaica takes its cultural character and a source of a continuum from the cultures of ancient Africa to our time. Of course, not all Jamaicans are descendants of slaves or of Africans. Jamaicans are Black, White, Maroon, Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Arab, and just about all others. However, as is commonly known, and as The Curator’s Eye III further substantiates, the cultural originality of the country is strongly affected by Africa and practices evolved from the days of slavery.

The media the artists use in the exhibition are perhaps unusually varied. There is excellent painting, prints photographs, and sculpture, as would be expected. There are four room -installations of objects and constructions, each an artist-created space that is a unique environment. Almost half the exhibition (7 rooms, each dedicated to one work by an artist) is of time-based art, meaning art that moves through space in time and in sound. These include film, video, TV, and animation. At least five of the artists use sound (i.e. noise as special demarcation, or music). There is also interactive art, where the viewer is invited to participate in creation of a ceremonial art performance. The Jonkonnu dancers that open the show symbolize the continuum of festive ceremony throughout the history of Jamaica.

Under the broad framework of ceremony, The Curator’s Eye III involves a number of themes that surface in several artists works in different ways. A common theme is common ritual, depicted in ways that are secular, religious, social, political, communal and personal. One example of ritual is Carol Crichton’s the athlete as Hero, which is an important icon in Jamaican sports. O’Neil Gordon’s photographs reveal a ritual by the sea. Khepera Hatsheptwa’s interactive installation is a ritual of social communion itself. Lawrence Graham-Brown’s work is about rituals of sexual exhibitionism. Albert Chong’s photo projections are about the ritual of the body adorned. Ras Kassa’s video is about the kaleidoscopic rituals of exuberance in urban Jamaica. As may be expected, there are several religious rituals in the show as well, including Paula Daly’s childhood Christian altar. Cleve Bowen’s mystical vision of light forces is a futuristic and abstract ritual. Another theme is of performance, examples of which are Oneika Russell’s No less Dancehall Girl, Graham-Brown’s video about beauty queens. Ebony Patterson explores the body beautiful and sexually transformed. Russell, Graham-Brown and Patterson explore perspectives of the Dancehall culture in different ways, each highlighting a dimension of iconic beauty layered with rich cultural meaning. Ras Kassa’s video celebrating the urban street culture, Chong’s tattooed figures, and Khepera’s interactive installation. Yet another theme is the concept of the wanderer or the traveller who journeys to a known or unknown destination. That Caribbean people wander the earth is an historic fact, so it should be no surprise that the image of the traveller surfaces in artists’ works. We see it in the Totems of Andy Jefferson, which are inspired by objects that drifted ashore. The journey is at the essence of Tal Rickards Serengeti. Moby Dick and Ophelia drifts away in Oneika Russell’s video, The Sea.” Transformation is a theme. In Russell’s The Sea Ophelia is transformed into Dancehall girl. A variety of sexual and gender transformations occur in Graham-Brown’s Who is more Masculine. Chong’s photographs are all about transformation. Michelle Eistrup’s paintings are about microscopic transformations and the mysteries and myths of the transformative nature of ancient and secret microcosmic potions. Issues of the all-surrounding sea itself are a preoccupation of just about all people in the Caribbean is a sub-theme. Russell’s video is about the transformative power of the primordial sea, as it engulfs and evolves imagery from age-old literature to the present-day fantasies. O’Neil Lawrence photographs are also about communion and ceremony with the sea. Much of the art in the exhibition include images about crafts as a theme, including costumes, jewellery, and body adornment, reflecting the continuing influence on today’s art of age old forms of art from Africa that are strong in Jamaica, if sometimes given short shrift elsewhere. Several artists dress figures in their work in various kinds of costumes, including O’Neil Lawrence and Albert Chong, and Lawrence Graham-Brown. Carol Campbell’s installation shows actual jewellery and a video of the body adorned in jewellery.

The Curator’s Eye III bridges more conventional forms of art with new media, all coming together to express art that has to do with issues of ceremony, celebration, ritual and performance. Painting, prints, photographs, and sculpture are well represented in the show, as it should be, since this tradition remains the backbone of much of the best Jamaican art. While taking nothing away from the high quality of the more traditional art, the emphasis in The Curator’s Eye III is clearly on new electronic media and installations which make up half of the exhibition.

As presented, the electronic media and installations require large amounts of space that make them difficult if not impractical to exhibit in private art galleries, and not easily marketable. It requires collaboration of a variety of sources to maintain this kind of art on a broad and sophisticated level. In countries where this is successful government agencies educational institutions and philanthropic organizations combine to prove support for artists and or their projects, being mindful of the limited marketability of some of the best art in the society. Such a strategy establishes national support, encouragement to emerging art forms and artists, and creates a broad social environment that encourages development of original and indigenous form of art. A corollary is to encourage commercial agencies to support time-based media such as film, video, and art through the internet. Artists do not always need or use the latest multi-media equipment, and in fact, often welcome older equipment to explore new cutting-edge ideas through the sheer originality of their imagination and the freedom from industry that they have as artists. Further, since older equipment may be used with peripherals to which the artist already owns or has access, its use may be more practical for artists need than new equipment. However, the new work artists create and novel ways in which they use media can also benefit the commercial world in terms of identifying new ideas for their products. And of course, the more such art is made the more intelligible and acceptable it may become to the general public, thus allowing for establishment of a wider acceptance of new media in art. In many countries, as we know, the commercial world supports much art endeavour for this very reason by donating new or used equipment to artist, arts institutions and schools. In many countries the artist is recognized as an experimenter and a source for new ideas. In Jamaica donation of equipment (new or used) by the commercial industry to schools and arts institutions could serve to cultivate a new dimension of Jamaica art, and as such serve as an incubator for new ideas for the commercial sector of the society. Such support could be a win for artists, industry, and the government equally. Best of all, it would be a win for the people of Jamaica as a whole.

Obviously all art needs broader support irrespective of the medium of the art. However, art with limited marketability needs more support than others. Further, art with limited marketability, such as room installations, performance, and electronic art, video and multimedia presentations are difficult to exhibit conventionally. However, it appears to me that the seeds for inclusion in Jamaican art lies in of some of the authentic ideas that characterize the country, such as ceremonial practices, religious or secular rituals, dancehalls, and street life, are probably best cultivated through the populist iconography of new media. “Populist” because its signs, symbols, metaphors, and narrative are commonly known; and the visual language of the art is vernacular. And in the case of electronic media, the art is also populist because it may be shared by a wider segment of the population than rational art, since the cost to own or reproduce it (copying DVD, CD, and video, or internet access) is negligible.

The creation of art installations is not cheap, neither is the art easy to exhibit and sell because of the large amount of space it so often requires. However, the art form allows the artist to create environments and to make statements about the society that in most cases can be done in no other way. Installations have therefore become invaluable to expression of the social ethos. While the cost to reproduce it is cheap, the cost to make art in electronic media is high, making it not profitable to the artist.

Access to Equipment and funding would not only encourages new art, but would serve to establish the originality of Jamaican art on the international stage. Originality in art is not how well artists emulate standards set by other cultures (e.g., Europe or the US), but how well they bring new ideas to the fore. Originality is the basis for cultural distinction, without which one is merely a follower, a footnote to the legacy of others. Originality, which comes from new idea, is needed before art can be made. New idea is the foundation of originality. In my opinion, without originality there is no art. Refinement of existing art ideas may be fascinating virtuosity, attained by the very few with superior skill, may be entertaining and enjoyable, but that by itself is what I would call more technical finesse than art. Originality by itself may not be art, but all true art I have seen includes originality. Original art is art that is potentially important. And importance is the criterion for change or influence on the art world at large. Jamaica is ripe with original ideas that may make new and important world-class art. These ideas are to be found in Jamaica’s spiritual and religious practices, its legacy from slavery, its multilayer ethnicity, Jamaican style, music, language, and attitude. In England and much of the world they call all black people “Jamaican” (to the disgust of other black nationalities) because Jamaican style, culture and attitude often stands spectacularly above the rest. Jamaicans are considered more African by natives of some African countries than themselves. All this should tell us that in the eyes and mind of others Jamaica abounds with uniqueness and originality. The use of new media and the embracing of long-standing practices (e.g., ceremony and multi-disciplinary performance) provide a broader framework for Jamaican artists to explore and nurture their originality, and to take their particular experience to a universal level. Universality is not static, neither is it predefined. Rather, it is created by developing indigenous ideas and revealing them to the world for all to share. If insufficient economy previously limited wider manifestation of Jamaican art, electronic media such as animation, film, video, and especially the internet has become an equalizer, since much of these, especially the internet is free. The internet is perhaps the most democratic and universal of all media, and provides a great opportunity for innumerable artists worldwide. Many have the opportunity but not the idea. Ideas are ripe in Jamaica. New media and experiences that are indigenous to Jamaica should serve to establish new art in Jamaica on a par with art anywhere in the world.

But often the best art is strident, even offensive, as it rubs against the grain to reveal complex and contradictory truths of the society it serves. So it is in contemporary Jamaica. And so perhaps the nucleus of originality of contemporary art in Jamaica is in the imagery of sex and gangsta in the Dancehall culture, which takes impetus from the mores of the slums of Kingston and flaunted as phallic shoot-outs in spotlights that defy perceived middleclass denial and suppression, as explored in this exhibition by several artists. But if the slum and Dancehall culture form the prominent contemporary paradigm for Jamaican art, it shares the stage with some other sources from which it springs, as seen in the work of other artists in the show, whose ideas harkening back to ancient Africa, through slavery, festivals, rituals, ceremonies and the urban popular culture. Jamaican artist are expressing a richly layered aesthetic as revealed in the work if these 15 artists. Jamaican artists stand to become world-class leaders through exploring the originality of their culture with its multiethnic racial and ethnic experiences, unique religious diversity and profound ceremonial practices. If The Curator’s Eye III is any indication, the future of art by Jamaicans could be internationally outstanding.

The Artists

Carol Campbell’s work in this exhibition is an installation expressing an array of imaginative about jewellery from ancient Africa to the present. The objects of jewellery she shows are artistic expressions that stand alone as sculptural objects with individual expression. When worn, as some (but not all) may be, their transformative power changes how we perceive the very essence of the wearer. Campbell’s jewellery not only adorns but transforms the body. The video of Africans in ceremonial jewellery, which she exhibits as a backdrop, underscores the importance of the tradition of jewellery as wearable and ceremonial sculpture that her own art reinforces. Campbell is an outstanding maker of art jewellery, most of which may be worn conventionally. Her sculptural jewellery takes the art to an exciting extreme, showing that jewellery is as fine an art as any other. Her installation as a whole is a celebration of the passage from Africa t of the body decorated with sensual forms.

Carol Crichton makes richly layered paintings in her compositions and imagery. The forms are like x-rays of colour and patterns that move back and forth through space. Her compositions and patterns are at once highly structured and at the same time random. The counterpoint between order and randomness is an imp0rtatnt part of her work, for the artist believes that this is a duality of the natural order of life. The images are iconic, reflection at once the particular and the ephemeral. Creighton’s painting “Reality “is prismatic, showing a complexity of layered images, which can be perceived as a total abstract kaleidoscope of form or as individuals in ceremonial pageantry. Hero 1 and Hero 2 celebrate the athlete in ceremony. Of course, the athlete is revered in Jamaica, and here Crichton elevates the concept of athletic celebration from the local to the universal. In her work the athlete stands as an essence of human achievement to celebrate.

Paula Daly has created an installation about her memory of childhood experience marching to the altar to receive the priest’s blessing in church. Her work seeks to recapture the magic and beauty of the mysterious artefacts and symbols of the altar. Daly’s art is essentially about the indelible stamp and lifelong joy of the Christian church to many in Jamaica. As ceremony has become widely celebrated in its guise of Africanness, it is no less so in the many forms of Christianity in Jamaica. It would be far from an over statement to assert that mainstream Christianity has been and continues to be a central cultural force in Jamaica, moulding the ethic and ethos of succeeding generations of children of varying backgrounds and ethnicity, even as they meet the challenge of Africanness and cultural diversity of Jamaica. Daly’s art is a straightforward traditional Christian statement. The essence of it lies in the forms she has recreated with their unusual beauty that elevates a childhood memory to a height of spiritual and aesthetic beauty.

Michelle Eistrup makes microscopic inventions of plant, objects, animals and birds symbolic participants in her aesthetical expression. Her method fuses photo and drawing. She creates an art about the existence in cultural dichotomies, by using the microscopic interpretations as intermediaries in spiritual and sacred spaces. The artist feels her work embodies much of the essence of expatriate Caribbean people who cull information from plants and insects to develop potions for survival. Eistrup’ work is about the world of the microcosm and the potency it can maintain in a larger world. Eistrup’s work consists of forms that weave a personal hive, sometimes insect-like, sometimes serpentine. The imagery is mysterious and suggests a primordial and sub-cultural entomology of strands of knowledge strung together like ingredients of the Juju and Obeah seen through a lens akin to the microscope. Eistrup creates a world that is ancient as it is contemporary, mystical as it is natural. Hers is a world of ways of the past that form a continuum to the future.

Andy Jefferson mines his background as printmaker and mixed media artist to create a two-part concept of Totems mirrored by flat, mixed media images. His six Totem poles mirrored by three prints and three paintings form a concept of ceremony and ritual. Jefferson’s Totems (each 6-12 ft. Tall) each represent an area of ceremony, including secular, civic, religious and staged ceremonies. The artist uses African, North American Indian and Taino symbols, embellished with mixed media, found objects (e.g., gaskets, nails, and driftwood), paint and varnish to create imagers of ceremony. The six prints include three collographs (intaglio and cardboard) prints mirroring three of the Totems, and three tartaruga prints (i.e., prints a texture based medium similar to acrylic modelling paste) to mirror the other three Totems.

Out of Many is one such work, which is about ritual/performance and beliefs as an object of worship, and the warding off of evil spirits. The artist observes that different cultures throughout time have used grotesque faces, spirits, or imaginary beings to instil fear in other people. The painting Travelling Souls is part of a series on the rituals around the sea. Travelling Souls is homage to the Caribbean ritualistic dependency and respect for the sea. The Caribbean soul in Jefferson’s painting wanders the sea like a contemporary Ulysses.

Ras Kassa’s work titled The Stew is an audio visual presentation of traditional and contemporary practices in life and performance in urban Jamaica. His work captures on film pedestrians, traffic and accompanying sounds in teaming Kingston. Imagery of Kumina, Jonkunu, Rastafari, Carnival, Dancehall, Obeah, marijuana, and a variety of other social ritual are wielded together in a kaleidoscopic vision. Ras Kassa’s camera follows a stray mongrel stray dog in one path through some of the grittiest parts of Kingston. At another point his camera follows a girl to a reading in a one-of-a-kind experience. Testimonials and narration pervade the whole. The tempo of the music and tone is varied, being moistly dub, but other variations are blended in too. Ras Kassa’s The Stew is a rich blend of the sights and sounds of urban Jamaica forming a cultural mix and ethos of a place and its times, and the rich multi-layered spirituality of its past and present.

Kenneth Baker: “Keith Morrison’s Art is the Stuff of Dreams”

Kenneth Baker: “Keith Morrison’s Art is the Stuff of Dreams”
“Keith Morrison’s Art is the Stuff of Dreams”

Kenneth Baker

Chronicle Art Critic

San Francisco Chronicle,

Section E1, Saturday, April 13, 1996

“Starkly unrelated images mesmerize unsuspecting viewers”

"A Night in Tunisia" oil on canvas 60 X 68" 1991

“A Night in Tunisia”
oil on canvas
60 X 68″

To externalize the dreaming process is one of the noblest and most seldom fulfilled possibilities of contemporary painting. We get rare, exciting glimpses of it in the work of Keith Morrison at Bomani Gallery.

Morrison, who is dean of the college of Creative Arts at dean Francisco State University, was born in Jamaica in 1942, but has lived in the United sates for many years and has travelled extensively.

His paintings are improvised images that reel between memory and fantasy, travelogue and rebus, borrowed and private symbols, References abound to the landscape and culture of the Caribbean, Africa and urban America

Many painters attempt the sort of free association Morrison practices, but of all modes of pictorial expression it may be the most difficult to sustain. Even Morrison’s wok can collapse into slapstick, as in “Red Sea “ (1995) or the didactic staginess of Cybercity” (1994).

Mind-Stopping Images

But when he keeps the difficult balance of not knowing what to do and doing it anyway, as in “A Night in Tunisia” and the dazzling “Crabs in a Pot” (1994) his images can stop the mind in its tracks.

To my eye, Morrison’s touch with paint is almost too relaxed, but if that looseness is the price of freedom he feels to deploy color, then to fault him for it would be eaviling.

His touch proves itself, though, in his manipulation of space. As in a dream, the objects and settings in his pictures seem to change dimensions with the intensity of your attention to them.

Focus on the background still-life objects in “A Night in Tunisia,” quiver with narrative insinuations, and the curved profile near the top of the picture feels like looming mountains. Only when you switch focus to those lavender-mottled curves do they show themselves to be the silhouette of a bass resting sideways atop the grand piano that forms the composition’s ground plane.

The elastic space of Morrison’s paintings cuts a middle path between the tormented spatial distortions of Max Beckmann’s allegorical pictures and the loopy reveries of Robert Colescott.

"Crabs in a Pot" oil on caves 60 X 64" 1996

“Crabs in a Pot”
oil on caves
60 X 64″

Dreaming Best Mind Model

Our everyday personal conduct rests on overestimation of the value and effectiveness of conscious control. Freud suggested that dreaming, not wakeful self-consciousness is the true model of mental life. And in Morrison’s best paintings we meet a similar notion, with the critical difference that Morrison performs his theory athletically.

I nominate “Crabs in a Pot” as a comic masterpiece. In it I see the painter trying to exorcise with laughter a private vision of the last judgment.

— Kenneth Baker

One of the best-known art writers in the U.S., Kenneth Baker began his career at the Boston Phoenix and has been the resident art critic at the San Francisco Chronicle since 1983. He covers a wide range of contemporary and historical art exhibitions, writing on the Max Beckmann retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the “Illuminating the Renaissance” show of manuscripts at the Getty (for example) along with art events of more local interest. He is the author of Minimalism: Art of Circumstance (Abbeville, 1989) as well as many catalogue essays.