Before recently, the best art museum I ever went to was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I thought their 45-min self-guided audio tour of museum highlights was the best idea ever. I could spend a short amount of time and yet be sure that I didn’t miss anything important. My patience for jockeying for position and reading ho-hum placards is scant. There comes a point that we all reach our limit.
Let me tell you… I could go back to the de Young in San Francisco over and over again. The collections are carefully curated and the **free** 1-hour African and Oceanic tour ended too quickly for me. However, the special exhibition, Revelations: Art from the African American South captivated me.
The de Young Museum leaped outside the sphere of stuffy art museums. They’ve showcased art from a neglected population and neglected themes. Artists created with simple mediums of spray paint, wood, wire and nails, and discarded metals. Without formal training, their styles are simple. But their message is loud and clear. Their world was shaped by racism and the aftermath of slavery: poverty, subjugation, condescension, and yearning for recognition.
Here a few of my favorites.
Camel at the Watering Hole
The way you make an African a slave, you make him invisible. I’m making the African visible. -Joe Minter
Take Minter’s Camel at the Watering Hole. Minter’s sculptures are made from trashed steel. Camel is the unpaid workhorse that helped build America. It wants to be seen and recognized for its efforts. Perhaps even be seen as an equal. What better place to see and be seen than the social gathering place?
Another sculpture by Minter, Hanging Tree possesses the center of the white room. Its’ metal branches endure the weight of chains, impersonating both slavery and suspended black bodies. The sight was so common, they wrote about it (Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holiday). The lurking presence is a souvenir of our behavior.
The famous artist, Kara Walker, connects these hangings with recent police shootings. Resurrection Story uses Walker’s signature silhouettes. Art critics have pointed out the irony in her depiction of blacks with silhouettes. This style was the popular method to capture images of whites before photography.
You could spend hours analyzing the symbolism in this piece. I see violent imagery in the fires and the smoke clouds. Black supporters struggle to hoist a fallen black woman, representing subjugation. A man with a shovel indicates that she had been buried. She could be a monument for the Black Lives Matter campaign.
A Taste of Gumbo
The most thought-provoking of all was A Taste of Gumbo by Robert Colescott. His inspiration in his own words:
Louisiana cooking is purely African food. Nevertheless, the French could enjoy it and be nourished by it, as they were by the slave mothers of their Creole offspring.
The French woman nibbles her gumbo and gazes away from the scenes around her. A multiracial couple. Poverty. Slavery. Gambling. The black man that servers her. The black woman that feeds her. It calls out the hypocrisy of relishing bits of a culture but shunning its influences. It criticizes making judgements.
The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. -Gilbert K. Chesterton
I admit that I am guilty of this. I fear that I’ve been disrespectful because I have made tons of judgements while on the road. And at home, for that matter. Take Athens for example. I didn’t like the city at all when I first arrived over two years ago. Why do they have to tag everything with graffiti? Why are there no sidewalks? Why are the streets so difficult to navigate? Why is it so dirty?
There are interesting and complicated answers to these questions. But, the point is to avoid missing the forest for the trees.
When we invade someone else’s place, don’t we owe it to them to consider the entirety of what there is to offer? And find some empathy and ask ourselves why things are the way they are? No place is immune to having problems. For sure, Athens is an empty place if all you see is the ever-busy Acropolis, dirt, graffiti, and tortuous streets.
I’ve also stopped looking at pictures of places before I visit. In the Instagram world, everything is beautiful and perfectly staged. But that just isn’t the way that it is. It’s not real.
I still have trouble with the dirt and the graffiti. I wish Athens were prettier. But it isn’t. During the last year I’ve lived here, I’ve learned more about the why. And I’ve learned about how beautiful it is too. There is kindness in the communities here and an abundance of tasteful food. I’ve come to appreciate the simple pleasure of buzzing chatter at the outdoor cafes. Good and bad, this is Athens.
I’ll leave you with a quote from another artist on display at Revelations, Thornton Dial.
All truth is hard truth. We’re in the darkness now and we got to accept the hard truth to bring on the light. You can hide the truth but you can’t get rid of it. When truth come out in the light, we get the beauty of the world.