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.

Howard Risatti: Keith Morrison

By Howard Risatti

Art Forum International

January, 1992, P.108

"Tombstones" oil on canvas 62 X 72" 1991

oil on canvas
62 X 72″

Brody’s Gallery

Considering the current interest in art focusing on political and multicultural issues, Keith Morrison’s paintings were timely and instructive – timely because of their social themes, and instructive because of Morrison’s reluctance to sacrifice aesthetic or philosophical substance in the service of overt polemics.

In the watercolor Hat Ladies, 1989, Morrison, who is from Jamaica, employs a touch of humor in combatting African and Christian Themes, by placing there brightly decorated hats on an open Bible. These hats – the kind worn by black women on their way to church — symbolize the religious faith of African-American women: their steadfast journey to church functions as a subtle metaphor for the black struggle more generally. Banana Republic, 1989, a watercolor for the same year, features brightly colored refuse – boxes and books of matches, banana peels, etc. –scattered on the ground to symbolize the careless plundering, by First World corporations of Third world countries.

The clarity of Light, openness of composition, the lyrical color in these watercolors, however, work against their subtle but serious subject matter. This becomes especially evident when comparing the oil/acrylic painting Banana Republic, 1990, with the watercolor of the same title. Even though the painting is much larger, its composition is tighter and this more unsettling. This is not only due to the darker color scheme, but is also the result of the fact that the strewn refuse, which now includes cigar butts and a child’s toys (railway tracks, a caboose, an automobile, and a crane), is more compacted, filling the picture plane wit larger than life-size elements. This compression produces greater visual tension in the figure/ground relationship, while the change in scale provokes a slight sense of the fantastic, comically framing this view of adults acting like children.

Two still-lifes entitled Night in Tunisia and Vanitas (both 1991) differ in theme, yet they show a similar concern for color and compositional invention. While reminiscent of the still lifes of Audrey Flack, Vanitas replaces Flack’s commercial color and harsh photographic light with a warmer, richer palette. Atop a red dressing table strewn with jewelry and cosmetics, a green parrot, attempting to impress an onlooking pigeon, “dances” atop an orange hand-mirror, creating a whimsical scene.

The influence of Morrison’s Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American cultural background is subtly suggested by the parrot as well as by the color scheme of Vanitas, and it is explicitly stated in Night in Tunisia, the title of which comes from a Dizzy Gillespie song. This large painting features African sculptures with Western musical instruments – a saxophone, a stringed bass, and a piano. Morrison’s idea of cultural exchange, however, is not to be found in strictly literal and superficial clichés. As Tombstones, 1991, makes plainly evident. His investigations of culture are more deeply philosophical. Suggesting a modern-day Demoiselles d’Avignon, in which Picasso’s nude women are transformed as black men, Tombstones is an allegory of sorts about drug use. Spread across the shallow space of the picture, four men do a deadly dance around a sinister central figure who points a gun at the viewer his next victim. Huge tennis shoes line the edge of the picture and vertical tombstones/tenement houses mark foreground and background. Seen against an intense orange sky, these vertical slabs suggest the gaping jaws of a monster.

The idea for the composition, according to Morrison, came from Peter Sellars’ version of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, entitled Mozart-Da Ponte Cycle, 1989, a production set in the shells of empty Bronx buildings in which Mozart’s feast becomes a cocaine-shooting party. What Morrison ahs done is to extract from Mozart’s 18th-century opera the universal themes of lust and morality, freedom and addiction, life and death. His figures, while contemporary, participate in a drama that is not ununique to any specific culture or time. Like Mozart, Morrison presents a dilemma of human beings at the brink of the abyss, about to be devoured by their own frailties and vices.

— Howard Risatti

Keith Morrison: “Perspectives on the Art of Gauguin”

Keith Morrison: “Perspectives on the Art of Gauguin”

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The Washington Post

By Keith Morrison July 3, 1988
The Gauguin exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Art to glowing press reviews. Viewers stand in long lines every day and pack the show. Movie stars, entertainers, fashion designers, the chic, the rich and the famous glamorize the attendance list. Yet, to some people, many of them nonwhite, the exhibition and the adulation bestowed on it by a predominantly white culture seem vaguely insulting. In the museum world in which the Gauguin exhibition so comfortably thrives, nonwhites can feel disenfranchised. To many of them the exhibition glorifies the white culture’s myth about the noble savage and his “free-spirited” (translated: simple-minded) nature. It is a myth graphically illustrated in this most comprehensive exhibition ever of the artistic legacy of Paul Gauguin.

This legacy is due in no small part to his contribution to the concept of the artist as a spiritual sauvage. The French word sauvage, meaning an unspoiled primitive or an uninhibited and natural spirit, has no exact translation in English. The commonly accepted belief about the art of Gauguin is that he achieved its sauvage quality through the influence of the simple people of Polynesia with whom he went to live. However, a careful look at the ideas and sources of his art invalidates this view. No doubt his early childhood in South America and his travels as a sailor made an impression upon him before he became a serious artist. However, his life and work as an artist show that his early wandering did not create the sauvage in him, but, rather, brought out the uninhibited spirit that was a part of his nature. In fact, he called himself a sauvage, bragging about some supposed distant Incan ancestry on his mother’s side.

Gauguin’s famous “Yellow Christ,” painted in Brittany in 1889, before he went to live in Tahiti for the first time, expresses a view of the Crucifixion as a ritual of the sauvage as enacted by Europeans in a European setting. Other aspects of his art seen in “Yellow Christ” serve to underscore the fact that most of his best artistic ideas developed in Europe. One of these is the emphasis on two-dimensional shapes in painting. A second is the use of simplified, expressive color. A third is the arrangement of monumental forms, shapes that seem larger than they actually are. Another is the creation of patterns to form pictorial composition in painting. “Yellow Christ” is an example of Gauguin’s early attempt to shape a world view of his own spirituality by synthesizing aspects of many cultures. An apt description of the painting was written in a catalogue in 1891 by the critic Octave Mirbeau: “A rich, disturbing blend of barbaric splendor, Catholic liturgy, Hindu reverie, Gothic imagery, obscure and subtle symbolism.” Thus, before going to live in the South Sea Islands for the first time, Gauguin already had in place the qualities of greatness for which he is known. A comparison between the art he did in Europe and that which he did in the South Seas reveals much.

“La Orana Maria” (The Holy Mary), done in 1891-92, is from his first period in Tahiti. The painting contains many of the stylistic qualities of “Yellow Christ”: The forms are simplified to seem primitive; they have a monumental sense of proportion; bright, expressive color is used to flatten the depth of the pictorial space; and patterns relate shapes to one another independent of their literal meaning. Like “Yellow Christ,” the Tahitian painting seems to express the emotional state of Gauguin himself, through the creation of a romantic environment for which he yearned. The significant difference between the two paintings is that they reflect two different sociological points of view. The earlier one shows Europeans to be holy people, while the latter shows dark-skinned people to be holy. In “La Orana Maria” the artist simply dresses qualities of the former painting in local garb. “La Orana Maria” was well received in Paris, probably because it was accepted as an image of placid heathens being converted to Christian verities. The Parisians might also have been fascinated by the sympathetic way in which a fellow Frenchman painted what appeared to be a pagan ritual and a sacrilege. They seemed to have taken vicarious pleasure in the idea, judging from the popularity of the painting.

On his return to France in 1892, Gauguin created a number of significant works including the ceramic sculpture “Oviri,” (Sauvage) in 1894. It is about a Tahitian goddess who rules over death and mourning. Again, Gauguin explores what is to him an expression of things wild, primitive and mysterious. However, an earlier work such as “Jug in the Form of a Head,” (done in 1889, before his first Tahitian period), withblood drenching his own death mask, is equally as primitive. If understood in a context that shows its relationship to his early work, it becomes clear that “Oviri” is the artist’s expression of his own fantasy rather than an authentic portrayal of the Tahitian deity.

One of the paintings of Gauguin’s final period in the South Seas is “Te rerioa” (Nevermore). The figures havebeen given a lifeless calm and a primitive simplicity that was a part of the predetermined vision that the artist held of Polynesians. Here Gauguin painted a vision of a personal Utopia,Artists from Picasso to Henry Moore have explored the mirage of a nonwhite primitivism. Gauguin contributed much to the origin of this idea. which he did not find there. In fact, this final period of his life was wracked with his own legal battles, and public and domestic turmoil on Hiva Oa.

Would Gauguin be considered such a great artist if he had not painted Polynesian scenes and Polynesian women? These are his most popular works and the commonly accepted source of his greatness. Yet, as we know, the formal and esthetic aspects of his work are the tangible qualities of his genius. Most of those ideas that characterize all of his best works, regardless of where they were done, were in place before he went to the South Seas. Gauguin seemed to be not unlike many other men of his time: a restless ex-sailor with a love of far-off lands carrying a lecherous white colonial’s license to bed down dark-skinned women. The esthetic qualities of his art made Gauguin great. Mingling modern art with exotic darkies made him famous.

Gauguin’s art is about his own sexual fantasies. With Gauguin, the artist’s self became the nucleus of his subject. The artist made art about himself and his ego became art itself. The use of one’s biographical fantasy, indeed one’s psyche, as the subject of one’s art is a 20th-century phenomenon. The greatness of Gauguin was not only in the pioneering way in which his art was so daringly drawn from his psyche, anticipating Freudian psychology, but also in the way his iconography cut across cultures, anticipating modern sociology. In Gauguin’s mind, his inner-self was found far from the “civilized,” which to him meant European decadence and sterility. His inner-self was found through experience of the purely uninhibited.

Yet, despite the importance of its use of new psychological ideas, Gauguin’s art was, in a sense, based upon a curiously inverted kind of racist propaganda.

One whole branch of modern art has glorified primitivism as an attribute imported to Western culture. Artists from Picasso to Henry Moore have explored the mirage of a nonwhite primitivism. Gauguin contributed much to the origin of this idea. His artistic fantasy about the natural and uninhibited primitivism of other people — whether he meant it as a compliment or not — was racist, since neither the Tahitians nor any other people portrayed in his art were the source of his vision.

There is no indication, however, that Gauguin was any more racist than other artists of his time. The difference between him and them was that he made nonwhite people a part of his visual autobiography while others did not. He was probably no more racist than the insensitive — or perhaps just unsensitized — audiences that accepted the implications of his work without qualm — and still do.

In the art of Gauguin, and in the unquestioning acceptance of it by hordes of contemporary audiences (be they chic and famous or not), there is still the assumption that he needed the primitivism of other people for his spiritual salvation. In fact, this was not true. He had been carrying his spirituality, and by self-definition his own primitivism, with him from Europe all along.

Keith Morrison is chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland.