Radcliffe Bailey’s work, laden with symbolism, explores significant issues of black identity, of how individuals may have arrived at their subjective racial, familial, political and national identities. In his exploration of African heritage, African American history, and his personal experience, he attempts to answer that question with a multi-layered art experience. In “Maroons,” the Atlanta artist’s current show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (through February 15), visitors are greeted by the work Vessel, a vintage model ship projecting from a loosely hung canvas and surrounded by three baskets of broken glass, some of which is scattered on the floor. Bailey makes frequent use of ships—with their loaded associations—in his work, but this one is different. Maroons, we’re told in the press release, were fugitive black slaves who established settlements in the West Indies and Guiana in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Bailey’s use of Maroons for the conceptual framework of this show provides a positive lens for one small chapter in the African American story. In that light, the ship in Vessel, bearing a small African figurine on its deck, could be said to have broken free from the bonds of slavery. Across from Vessel is a bronze sculpture of W.E.B. Du Bois posed on a stack of rough-hewn wood blocks like Rodin’s Thinker. Titled Pensive, the work was commissioned by the UMass University Museum of Contemporary Art for the 2013-2014 exhibition “Du Bois in Our Time.” The placement of Du Bois opposite of Vessel seems appropriate, as if the scholar himself were trying to ponder the significance of the Maroons and of black identity across centuries.
In an essay that appeared in Atlantic Monthly titled “Strivings of the Negro People” (later revised and republished as “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” in his book The Souls of Black Folk), Du Bois asserted that African Americans struggle with a multifaceted conception of self, a “double consciousness,” i.e., a detachment from and attachment to one’s home country. African Americans are constantly reconciling the two cultures that make up their identity. Stripped of their African heritage but not American citizens, they were neither. While double consciousness is a filter that we can interpret Bailey’s work through, there is the additional consciousness of the subjective: individual and family experiences, the result of being born in a place and time not of our choosing.
Four works on paper—African imagery painted onto sheet music—from Bailey’s Notes from Tervuren series are included here. Tervuren is one of the richest municipalities in Belgium and the one-time home of King Leopold, colonizer of the Congo, who extracted wealth and resources from the African country to build his palatial museums. In a video interview posted on Bailey’s gallery page, the artist says that his desire for these works was to cross-reference the classical music of the era of slavery with images of contemporaneous African art. It works. The dichotomy of the two cultures becomes self-evident. Double consciousness, revisited. Western and African cultures collide on the paper in dramatic fashion. A large painting titled Congo, featuring doll arms—dismembered—attached to a black tarp, would imply that Leopold was less than civil in his exploitation of the region.
The large work Clotilde, named for the last slave ship to deliver human cargo to the U.S. from Africa in the fall of 1859, foreshadows the end of slavery. It features a surface covered with black sand and a large piece of white coral attached near the top. Part of a ship seems to emerge from the darkness, itself covered with black sand, apparently sailing into (or away from) blackness, or death. This work, along with Notes from Tervuren and Congo, require one not only to assess identity but to question where and how things begin and end. While Clotilde could symbolize the end of slavery, it also suggests the tumultuous beginning of the black struggle for civil rights. As for Congo, colonization ultimately led to independence and an ongoing violent, internal conflict.
So, how each of us arrive at our racial, familial, political, and national identities is constantly in flux. We find ourselves at different junctures of different struggles.
With so many works loaded with symbolism and sometimes obscure references, it is worth asking whether Bailey’s intended meaning is lost on the viewer, and whether that matters. On the one hand, I think not, because a little intellectual curiosity makes it worth the effort. On the other hand, should the viewer have to work so hard and do his own research to properly evaluate a body of work? Despite its mysteriousness, Bailey’s work delivers powerful imagery and provides a great point of departure for exploring the challenges of the African diaspora from an African American perspective.
Carl Rojas is a critic and reformed philosopher living in Atlanta. He encourages all readers to get out of Atlanta and see art in places like Los Angeles and New York, where he and his wife (the editor of BURNAWAY) share a second home.