When you see the press photograph of flowers and offerings laid out in front of Emanuel AME Church after the recent shootings, it is right there, just behind the gate (see such an image here). Bearing witness. It was there when Dylann Roof walked through the doors of the church on June 17, 2015, and it bore witness to the loss of nine lives. It is a sculpture by Southern-born, New York artist Ronald Jones, set in a custom-built niche under the entry staircase at the church: two black marble bust sculptures of two African-American boys. As a Charlestonian, hearing about the killings on the news the next morning was shocking. And surreal. And heartbreaking. I told myself that it could have happened anywhere, but the heartbreaking part was to know that it happened in the town where I grew up, the town where my family still lives, the town that I visit as often as I can, the place that I still consider home.
As a white Charlestonian, it was unlikely that I would ever experience an AME church, but it was art that enabled me to start to cross color lines in Charleston. And it was that particular church that I went to. When I took this picture of the Emanuel AME Church years ago, I was doing research for my masters thesis about an art exhibition that took place in Charleston, South Carolina in 1991. The show, “Places with a Past,” featured several site-specific artworks, and one had been installed at the Emanuel AME Church. Unlike most of the works in the show, which were temporary, this one was installed permanently, which meant that it was still possible to view. I don’t know any of the members of the congregation at “Mother Emanuel,” or have personal connections to the lives that were lost, but I know this artwork. And this past week I have been thinking a lot about it. It reminds me that in times of crisis, art can offer refuge. The killings were heinous and incomprehensible. If I really think about what happened in Charleston, tears start to well up and my instinct kicks in to stop the tears. Coming back to Jones’s artwork is calming and stabilizing. I remember to side with love, not hate. These marble busts offer witness and solace alike.
One child rests his chin on his arms, crossed and resting on the ledge, while the other is shown from the waist up, his head tilted just so as he holds it up with one hand. The poses are familiar from countless poster reproductions of the cherubim in Raphael’s painting The Sistine Madonna (1512-13), which were later appropriated by photographer George N. Barnard for his portrait South Carolina Cherubs (after Raphael), Charleston, S.C. (1874-75). The doubling of the sculptures refers to Barnard’s use of the image as a stereograph, an early form of photographic 3-D technology. Jones has literalized the stereograph’s illusion by transforming the image into actual three dimensions, choosing black marble to represent black skin and offsetting that against the veined pink marble behind the busts in the niche.
A grey slab below tells visitors that the work commemorates a slave rebellion organized by Denmark Vesey and planned at the church (when it was at a different location) but ultimately stopped by authorities before it could take place. Vesey was executed, becoming a martyr for the cause of freedom from slavery. A lengthy title presents these layers of information to us on the slab: “Untitled (This representation of George N. Barnard’s stereograph South Carolina Cherub (after Raphael), Charleston, S.C., c.a. 1874-75, is a remembrance of Denmark Vesey’s righteous rebellion. Vesey, a freed black man, planned the liberation of Charleston’s slaves at the Hampstead congregation of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1822. And though the insurrection was put down only hours before it was to unfold across the city, Vesey’s spirit of revolt against injustice was an expression of the promise of civil rights in a free society.) Erected in 1991. Authorized by members and trustees. Reverend J. H. Gillison, Pastor.”
I do not remember learning about Denmark Vesey in school, but then again, I also don’t remember learning about slavery or the Civil War. It was simply all around, experienced at plantations turned into tourist attractions or class field trips to the Confederate Museum at the Old City Market. I do remember learning about the Civil Rights movement (we watched the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series in school), but I did not know then that the Emanuel AME Church was instrumental in that movement in Charleston. It was from “Places with a Past” that I started to learn about parts of my hometown’s history that had not been included in the textbooks or the tourist sights. The experience gave me a sense of opening up to different points of view, to different lives, to listening and learning. Jones encodes this path of learning in the postmodern strategy of intertextuality, creating a mise en abyme loop through Barnard to Raphael, all with the aim of deconstructing how we picture race and innocence. Because these boys look like innocent children. Their lack of clothing presents them as if pure before God, and the quotation of cherubim associates them with holy witnesses. The cherubim observed Christ’s innocence and seem to know that the story won’t end well, but that Christ will sacrifice his life for the good of others. Barnard’s photograph gives us icons of humanity, pictured at a moment without the violence of slavery or rebellion or racism or white supremacy. Young enough to be born after the Civil War, they are hopeful about a future without prejudice and hate.
Jones’s sculptures watched Roof and every visitor or congregation member who was welcomed into the sanctuary, and who will continue to be welcomed. They watched the tragic sacrifice of nine more lives. But ultimately, they are watching us. They remind me that site-specific art can do real work. In this case, the sculptures not only commemorate the struggles of the past, but also bear witness to their continued relevance and look toward the struggles of the future.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.