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Kerry James Marshall

Mementos
May 06 – June 28, 1998

 

To Fulfill These Rights

The opening chapter of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's infamous White House Report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action provides perhaps the most telling and immediate framework for considering the successes and failures of the Civil Rights Movement. At the time the report was written in 1964, Moynihan was Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson administration and his intentions were announced in the report's title. It was a case, not a plan, for national action. Written in alarmist fashion, it was designed to spur President Johnson to avert what Moynihan perceived to be a crisis in black family life. As a Labor Department official, the equation was simple. Employment and family well-being are inextricably linked. After observing a drop in unemployment and an increase in welfare enrollment, Moynihan was moved to signal a crisis. From his perspective, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act took place at a moment when poverty could perpetuate itself in the absence of discrimination. He sounded the black family alarm in fear that the Johnson administration would not go far enough in meeting the demand for equality. Moynihan succeeded in not only catching the attention of the President but also that of the nation.

Moynihan's report was released on the eve of the 1965 Watts riots which only confirmed his sense of alarm. Within three years, the report became a document against which the need for action resounded. In 1967, Lee Rainwater and William Yancey published an anthology which contained the full report, critical essays on its immediate reception, and dozens of responses from civil rights organizations, sociologists, women's organizations and other branches of the Federal Government. The most enduring criticism of Moynihan's report is that its statistical data are dubiously linked, creating a hierarchy of symptoms which, in the absence of a solution, read as an instance of blaming the victim. However flawed the report, Moynihan perceived it as a means to lobby for measures over and above those designed to lessen black's disproportionately high share of the nation's economic hardship. In his opening chapter, he makes a clear distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of result with the latter being the end goal of what he called "the Negro Revolution." For Moynihan, the Civil Rights Movement was over at precisely the moment its actual work was to begin. This explains his choice of title for the report's opening section - "The End of the Beginning."

Although Kerry James Marshall entitled his exhibition Mementos, he could just as easily have borrowed the title of Moynihan's opening section. Any affinity between Marshall and Moynihan is a paradoxical one to be sure. What they have in common is the problem of tense when speaking of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the Civil Rights Movement as a movement proper can be seen as a phenomena of the 1950s and 1960s, our civil rights stem from the 14th Amendment. In recognizing recently freed slaves as citizens, the 14th Amendment called into question our understanding of rights and equality. From this perspective, the Civil Rights Movement is linked to Reconstruction, a period beginning with the close of the Civil War in 1865 and ending in the mid 1870s when Southern state legislatures regained their political autonomy. With its roots in a constitutional amendment dating from Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement is an historical fulcrum mediating an ongoing struggle over our national fabric. Mementos is a frank acknowledgment of a precarious present just this side of that fulcrum.

Mementos consists of three new large scale canvases, a video installation, two photographs, a funerary floral arrangement, and a series of prints that correspond to the five oversized stamps reminiscent of works by Claes Oldenburg. From the corridor, one can glimpse the five stamps that feature prominent 1960s slogans which run the political gamut of the Civil Rights Movement, from "We Shall Overcome," the title of a hymn synonymous with the non-violent strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr., to "Black Power," the title of Stokely Carmichael's (a.k.a., Kwame Turre) black nationalist manifesto. Marshall has arranged the prints to form a narrative which runs from a message of love to a message of violence. Pulled in red, black and green, colors symbolic of black nationalism, the slogans are nostalgic, their life expectancy reduced to that of a T-shirt. The stark white frames and bold, sans-serif typeface of the prints combined with the simple but pronounced geometry of the stamps makes this an elegant modernist work designed for an institutional setting. For Marshall, elevating these slogans to museum status is a metaphor for the fate of the Civil Rights Movement which has become the object of academic analysis rather than a lesson in political strategy deployed at a grass roots level. The intellectual chiefs are many but the troops are few making phenomena such as the Million Man March that much more pronounced. Toppled, tumbled or upright, the stamps can be read as buoys adrift on the ground plane of history come again as an endless sea of debate or as fallen monuments, tombstones even, to popular slogans which have lost their ability to galvanize the black community.

There is a memorial aspect to every component of the exhibition, particularly the three large paintings which Marshall refers to as the Souvenir series. With neither the network of churches nor Christianity's moral fiber, the Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible. The central role of church organizations in African-American politics and culture makes it hard to imagine that paintings dedicated to memorializing such a rich and turbulent era could be anything but religious. All one has to do is substitute gold leaf for glitter to realize the Souvenir series belongs to a history of solemn visitations. African-American music, whether sacred or profane, owes a substantial debt to the spiritual if not to the fact that some of its brightest talents received their training in gospel bands. In Souvenir III, Marshall hints at a common spiritual source for all black music by having jazz and blues greats nominate each other for a place in kingdom come. Souvenir II reveals Marshall as heir to a palette and spatial sensibility somewhere between the High Renaissance of Botticelli and the Mannerism of the Carracci. A smile feels extremely remote as his angel acknowledges the viewer with an unflinching gaze and assured composure which asks that you consider your place as much as you are given the privilege of considering hers - a place which despite her stature as an angel, happens to be very much of this world.

Marshall modeled the settings of the Souvenir series after black middle class living rooms that have the shrine-like quality of Depression-proof interiors, as static and eternal as a plastic plant in a plastic pot. They are rooms where loved ones captured in the first generation of color photography yellow to the tick of a too accurate clock. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place, including the gaudy yet priceless souvenir cherished as a reminder of people and places that make up a life. It is where memorabilia from the births, graduations, weddings, anniversaries and funerals of a hundred distant relatives are preserved. For African Americans, all of whose lives were in some way affected by the struggle for equality, it is impossible to think of a room made claustrophobic with memories that does not double as a shrine to saints Kennedy and King.

When it comes to recalling the events of his childhood, Marshall often refers to himself as a "prisoner of context." Born in 1955, Marshall is a native of Birmingham, Alabama where he spent the first decade of his life. It was in Birmingham during the summer of 1963 that the Civil Rights Movement would reach its climax. Birmingham became the center of civil rights protests as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by King, launched demonstrations protesting the segregation of lunch counters and public restrooms. King was arrested and during Easter weekend he wrote Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Roughly a month later, The SCLC organized its children's crusade during which Birmingham Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor set dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. Several days after that event, King and Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth met with Birmingham officials and announced they had agreed to a desegregation plan. That evening, King's hotel was bombed and blacks rioted until dawn. A month later, on June 11, Governor George Wallace stood in a classroom doorway in an attempts to block integration at the University of Alabama. That Summer's tragic finale were the deaths of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It is to them that the flowers bursting from the cross are dedicated. All this to say, Marshall feels he had little choice as to his subject matter.

Marshall refers to his large scale canvases as history paintings, a genre which has been obsolete for practically two hundred years. Marshall's use of an obsolete genre, however, is a gentle irony come strategy. By translating a not so distant past into mural-size, figurative paintings, Marshall has secured a place for African American history on museum walls where, save for the month of February, it is sorely lacking. But how much of Marshall's subject matter is past and how much of it is present? Marshall presents a vision few would have difficulty accepting, a vision of the afterlife in which a noteworthy pantheon of African Americans have earned wings they probably paid for twice. In its guise as a memorial to fallen leaders, Mementos, represents closure to the most recent chapter in American history. Marshall began this body of work when thinking about the 1960s and asking himself quite frankly, "What Happened?" "Where did the leadership go?" Marshall, like most historians, attributes a great deal of the Civil Rights Movement's success to the link between its leadership and its grass roots efforts. While we can eulogize the Movement's leaders and the long list of cultural and political figures who passed away between 1959 and 1970, it is more difficult to memorialize a movement whose goals have yet to be met. Were the goal of equality met, laying the 1960s and Civil Rights Movement to rest would be more of a reality and less of a fantasy. In this respect, Mementos is as much a work of magic realism as it is a memorial. Yet, in meeting the central angel's gaze, one cannot help but ask if the souls of our brethren are in fact rested. The generic, highschool yearbook portraits of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, the three young Freedom riders whose bodies were found after a six week search, betray an innocence as to their unspeakably cruel fate. We know what they died of but what did they die for? Will they ever know if their fight was ever truly finished, let alone won?

Stripped of its associations with the afterlife, the use of utopian fantasies to address a less than perfect reality is even more pronounced in Marshall's previous body of large scale paintings depicting Chicago Housing Projects. Although our civil rights are comprised of legislation stemming from the 14th Amendment, what is often at issue is access to education, employment, and housing, linking the CHA paintings directly to the Souvenir series. Whereas the Souvenir series presents the death of an era as both fact and fantasy simultaneously, without necessarily pitting one against the other, the same could hardly be said of the CHA paintings which consider what the housing projects were, what they were intended to be, and what they are in spite of themselves. The story of Federal housing projects has two parts - the housing and where to put it. The pattern of post World War II Federal Housing projects in Chicago is a history of urban segregation and sad to say, the making of the city as we have inherited it. Although the CHA was established in 1937 during the Depression to alleviate slums and to meet the overwhelming demand for low cost housing, the most intense crisis followed World War II when the units in Marshall's paintings - Altgeld 1945, Wentworth 1947, Stateway 1958, and Rockwell 1961 - were built. In 1955, two-thirds of CHA residents were black. This figure rose to 85% in 1959 by which time the policy for the segregation and containment of blacks to the inner city had become clear and inescapable. By 1962, 90% of all CHA residents were black and within three decades, the conditions which the CHA had been established to abolish, had in fact been perpetuated. Marshall's paintings have as their starting point our familiarity with this story.

The four housing projects in Marshall's CHA paintings all have "Garden" at the end of their title. Taking the idyllic connotations at face value, Marshall has chosen to portray the characters gardening, reposing or strolling. From the decorative to the painterly, from the highly illustrative to the iconographic, the CHA paintings are the result of an art historical rummage sale in which Marshall has redeemed the use value in a range of styles and techniques. The tearful drips of paint that run from his stamped flower pattern are a far but gentle cry indeed from the celebratory splatter of say Jackson Pollock, serving to reinforce the somber aspect of Marshall's subject matter. Depending on the viewer's predisposition, many of Marshall's meandering strokes can be read as an affirmation of the hand a la De Kooning or the urgent illegibility of an anonymous tagger. The ribbons, rays, flora and fauna which mingle with the tenants announce a jubilation, as if the Civil Rights Act of 1968 - the country's first open housing law prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, financing and advertising of housing - signaled these dwellings' biblical reversion to Eden. The mood, however, is neither celebratory nor sarcastic, but complex and contradictory, much the way hope is nestled within despair. Not only is Marshall aware of our familiarity with the historical circumstances surrounding the housing projects, but the characters in his paintings know that we know. Their gestures and gazes are rhetorical, simultaneously asking and demanding that their lives be accorded a humble dignity associated with everyday life. This question is put forth no less rhetorically in Marshall's literal use of black face.

Is there black life free from the anxiety born of stereotypes, be they literal, (read Step 'n' Fetchit), statistical (read sociology and marketing) or sensational (read criminal/athlete complex)? Laid to Rest, the video projected inside the mausoleum-like structure represents our contradictory relationship to stereotypes which for better or worse are as much a fact of life as the are a fiction of life. On a formal level, Laid to Rest exposes the fluid dynamic between Marshall's film work and his painting practice. Marshall has done set work on several films, most notably Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust and Haille Gerima's Sankofa. As a video installation, Laid to Rest is a tableau, viewed through holes in the structure's South facade. The projection features a wake for a black face ragdoll whose spirit quickly rises from its body and vanishes before being replaced with a stop-action animated sequence reminiscent of the collages of Romare Bearden. The eternally twirling pennies at the head of the coffin conjure associations ranging from Lincoln worship, to the song "Pennies From Heaven," to an image of coins inserted in the eyes of the deceased. For African Americans, forging a cultural identity has involved the fight against stereotypes over which they had no control. According to the first minute of the video, it is safe to say Sambo is dead. As a wake for these kinds of stereotypes, Laid to Rest announces a moment of self-determination. But again, the strength in Marshall's work is its ambivalence. Although Sambo is dead, grave contrasts and pathology within the black community lives. The animated sequence that follows Sambo's death, features a rape, a car jacking, a shoot-out, a robbery, a prayer scene and an exchange between a young black couple who alternately refer to one another as King and Queen, Nigger and Bitch. Reconciling these scenes with the death of Sambo is as hopeless as coming to grips with a week's worth of media accounts where stories regarding the black community oscillate wildly between tales of hope and tales of homicide. Marshall's wake begs the question as to whether blacks will ever be able to rid themselves of stereotypes as long as they claim a disproportionately high share of ills associated with poverty, ills which make it diffficult to separate issues of race from those of class.

The goal of a color-blind society remains one of our most persistent and cherished visions. For Moynihan, a color-blind society was to be achieved through equality of results. When the quality of life for blacks was statistically on par with that of whites, race would cease being an issue. Since Moynihan's report offered no solutions, it can be counted amongst the problems. It is however, a significant document for it raised the dilemma as to whether race targeted programs reinforce separatism or if their absence would cement a racial caste system. In this respect, the report did not so much sound the black family alarm as it did the white liberal alarm. The Moynihan report signaled political white flight, as liberals would falter before issues of race and reparation ensuring an inability to meet many of the Civil Rights Movement's demands and therefore put history behind us. In an effort to offset the clamor surrounding the report's release, the Johnson cabinet called a conference entitled "To Fulfill These Rights." The conference failed. Issues raised by the report remain. In fact, Moynihan's report can be credited with setting the rhetorical tone for much of today's public policy. As sociologist Stephen Steinberg has noted in his book, Turning Back; The Retreat From Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, Moynihan has been intellectually reincarnated in a new generation of sociologists and policy makers, most notably William Julius Wilson. But we hardly need look to sociology for proof that we are nearer the 1960s racial crossroads than we want to believe. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is still before Congress and is an attempt to reverse the erosion suffered by previous Civil Rights Acts under Nixon, Bush and Reagan. In 1989, following a series of conservative decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, Justice Harry Blackmun, one of the dissenters responded "One wonders whether the majority still believes that discrimination is a problem in our society, or even remembers that it ever was." Mementos is about remembering so as not to forget the past is still not over .

Author: Hamza Walker
   
   
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