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.