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Sunday, June 17, 2007

An Essay from the Back Forty

An Essay from the Back Forty

A Critique from Kerry James Marshall

By Aziza C. Gibson-Hunter

June 8th was a beautiful day, one of those days that sparkles Ethiopian sun drenched light found in the paintings of Mekbib Gebertsadik. Kerry James Marshall is staying with my family awaiting his opening reception for the exhibition, “Framing Memory”. Memories percolate.

We talked about art in bare, no frills apartments, intense, enthusiastic, naïve. Me, with a young family; Kerry, a young fellow at the Studio Museum. We met through “Where We At” a group of female artists and “Weisui” a group of male artists. We had been assigned to each other to create a piece of art together for an exhibition titled Joining Forces 1+1=3. A relationship forms. My husband Jawara and son Kamau become a part of this creative relationship. We share our thoughts on apartheid, art, culture, and life in Harlem 1986, late into the night.

Twenty-one years later we are sitting in Washington DC. Kerry will be opening his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery later this evening, and I am now the mother of four powerful children, still producing art, seeking to understand the workings of the art world. Kerry shared his understanding of the mystery with friends and myself. After an insightful meeting with members of BADC (Black Artists of DC), Kerry lets me know that he wants to see what is in my studio. Yeah, I was intimidated and pushed myself to "get over it” in a matter of seconds. We walk to my, garage, no………………, studio.

“You’ve been working”

The place is a mess. I had been working on a small public art piece that will sit at the Van Ness Metro Station. It is full of bright polka dots: the green and orange competing for attention.

Suspicious Activity is on the walls. Nine 24” x 24” square canvases, each layered with images and words, I have been working on them since January (with bread and butter projects in-between). Kerry glances at them and in the speed of his glance I know he’s seen millions of images and has been asked to comment far too many times than one would like to count. He asks me about the theme of the work. I’m exploring the language used by the US government, locally, nationally, and internationally. (My statement probably was not so concise) “Then why”, asked Kerry “ are there images?” I floundered around for an answer, simulating an attempt to locate house keys in my pocketbook, “ Because too many times people just don’t read…. (The images reinforce the words and act as counterpoints, I thought …not sure just what came out of my mouth). He gave me the name of an artist, Christopher Wool and explained how I could make a person experience the definition of a word through my treatment of the font in various media or techniques. I could see his point. Scale, he thought was a problem. Too small to hit as hard as they can. Larger.

Kerry suggested that I take a look at the architect Albert Speer, a Nazi who designed buildings for the Third Reich. He designed them to intimidate, and strike fear he explained as he eyed a painting with an image of the infamous Superdome in New Orleans. “Concentrate on the image”, he advises, ” take away anything that does not help to convey your intent. Might be too much information.

I made a statement about Jeff Donaldson and his assertion that part of the African American aesthetic is clutter and how he made me appreciate the genius of those old Black women with all the pictures of every grand child crowded on the mantle with faded photos of extended family. We talked about AfriCobra and how Donaldson made the affinity for clutter a tenant in the aesthetic of Africobra.

You could, he said; create twenty artworks from each of these nine paintings. T W E N T Y !!! My brain yelled and quickly sobered. I looked at him to see if the expression on my face revealed the yell. Twenty…Hmmmmmmmmm. I did not sleep well that night. My mind kept rummaging through my images for those 20 images.

Today is June 13th. I have organized my ideas for creating 10 of the twenty for the each of the nine paintings. Still working…. My mind is racing!!!!

photographs by Harlee Little

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