I was in the Institute for Contemporary Art yesterday, at an exhibition entitled When Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South. I left South Carolina temporarily in 1957 and permanently in 1963. While I’ve not always been interested in what was going on in South Carolina, sometimes I am interested, and the ICA and its exhibition’s subtitle—Imagination and the American South—drew me out to the South Boston waterfront to see the show.
Organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, the ICA presents the work of 36 American artists of African descent from across the South. The artists are not all of the same generation, and there is no single style and no single subject matter, no single attitude among these artists, whose work spans the last fifty years. At least one of these artists is gay, and my impression is that many of them, when they focus on other people, are looking at family members—mothers, fathers, wives, occasionally children. There were several portraits in oil by various painters and half-a-dozen busts in fired clay made by Son Thomas of Greenville, Mississippi, a self-portrait, and one of George Washington. There are a good many pictures of houses and yards, and occasionally nostalgia for a time now lost. It seems to me that this is a personal, intimate art for the most part, art for making permanent the artist’s imagination and its response to the life around him.
There were works whose subjects showed the influence of the spirit world—ghosts, evidence of the world of “haints” and the power of the unseen world—but there were also pictures where the artists’ take on their subject matter was to dissect it, break it down into its component parts as if to create a diagram from which it could be created again.
There were pictures created in oil on canvas, pictures composed of hand-printed words in black on a white canvas as if to name it were to own it, pictures created by computer software and collage, miniature houses created out of wood, wall hangings made of different fabrics and threads like quilts, sculptures made of fabric, and photographs of houses in the woods, of people and of the interior of houses, and, in almost every gallery room, works of sculpture. Many of these works, both paintings and sculpture, are made from found objects and have the revealed quality that re-used material sometimes have.
The variety of the uses of the imagination seems, after this exhibition, to be endless. Jacolby Satterwhite, working with small pencil drawings his mother had made, placed the small pencil drawings, smaller than a table mat, against a very large, computer-generated picture, as large as the wall of the gallery. The effect bridges the past and the present in a phantasm in space that includes the artist himself in erotic poses. J. B. Murray communicates feeling with asemic calligraphy across a sheet of drawing paper, which is interrupted by splashes of startling and vivid color. Slavery is mentioned once or twice, and artists set about consciously inserting black people into narratives from which they have hitherto been barred—Frankenstein, for example.
I saw this exhibition Friday, and then saw it again yesterday. When I came back, two guards in different galleries broke into broad grins when they saw me. “You came back!” I think I had pleased them by showing them something good about myself, that is, I liked their pictures. This is a wonderful show.
I read an article on Friday on Slate, by Mark Joseph Stern, on a recent amicus brief submitted by the state of South Carolina to the US Supreme Court in preparation for the hearing of the marriage cases that the SCOTUS will conduct at the end of April. The Attorney General of the state of South Carolina makes an originalist argument in answer to the SCOTUS’s question, “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?” Needless to say, South Carolina answers in the negative, asserting that the original text of the Fourteenth Amendment was not meant to address any discrimination but racial and it also asserts, while they are at it, that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require a state to treat a woman as an equal to men. The full text of this amicus brief is here.
Whatever the legal validity of South Carolina’s “originalist” reading of the Fourteenth Amendment, we here in America in 2015 will be the poorer were this reading of the amendment adopted. The result would be to turn the clock back on the last one hundred and forty-seven years of our nation’s political and constitutional progress and history. Whatever the Justices think of South Carolina’s amicus brief, it represents a failure of the imagination to see where we are today and to see from where we have come. The show at the ICA enriches us still, without forgetting today. The varieties of its imagination is full, daring, courageous, and knowing. I have seen it three times and have bought the Catalogue. Do yourself a favor and see it.