At War With Ourselves – A Visual Response to the Racial Legacy of the Civil War

The first thing you notice are the spent bullet casings embedded in a spiral against the red and white stripes of the American Flag. Then you notice the pearls in the place of stars, “tears” according to artist Cheryl Edwards. Looking closely against the red strips you can make out ghostly photo transfer images of black males that have recently made headlines, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Michael Gray, and Trayvon Martin. Edwards points to an image in a hoodie, “that is Barack Obama” in reference to Obama’s remark following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, that if Obama had had a son, he’d look like the 17 year-old boy.

Cheryl Edwards. Photo by  Jefry Andres Wright.
Cheryl Edwards. Photo by Jefry Andres Wright.

The exhibit, At War with OurselvesThe Battle of and for the Black Face Boy: A Visual Response to the Poem by Nikky Finney, at the Brentwood Arts Exchange from May 23-July 18, 2015, is curated by Carol Dyson. This exhibit is part of a year-long series of programs that address the legacy of the Civil War on race in America. Some of the strongest works include the multimedia work by Cheryl Edwards Americans V, a quilted fiber piece by Esther Iverem, In the Event of My Demise, and an aluminum tower hanging post, Nat Turner, by Robin Croft. The deliberate use of materials to convey meaning is what pushes these pieces beyond political statements into art of emotional heft.

Cheryl Edwards, Esther Iverem, and R.L. Croft discussed their works in the exhibit with me.

Maggie: Did you make the work in response to the Nikky Finney poem At War with Ourselves: the Battle of and For the Black Face Boy or was it an existing work?

Iverem: In the Event of my Demise was an existing work completed for my recent one-woman show at 410 GoodBuddy Art Space during March-April 2015.

Edwards: Americans V  was created in response to Nikky Finney’s poem. Her poem starts from the beginning–slavery and moves us historically along the stages of American treatment of African American men. Americans V speaks directly to the brutal killings of African American men by police officers in many cities in the United States. It is a depiction of the state of African American men in the 21st century. Although this work was conceptualized before the Baltimore incident it is still a very poignant representation of the state of the American police force and the treatment of African American men.

Croft: No, I didn’t make the work for the exhibit. I met Carol Dyson in April at the opening of my solo at Charles Krause Reporting Fine Art, which runs until June 20th. We were talking about how issues of race have surfaced in my work for many years, and she invited me to send her some images. I learned of the Finney poem after being invited to exhibit, and read it when it was made available. I suspect Carol saw that my work dovetailed well with the poem’s themes.

How did making the work evolve?

Edwards: I typically do not like to create art for a specific theme; which made this somewhat of a difficult task to conceptualize. I was interested in creating a work that was conceptual in nature; however not too intellectually complex . I was influenced by my art teacher Ernest Crichlow’s work created specifically during the wpa (Works Progress Administratiom) period. Although the work might describe the 60’s political protest movement at first glance, the he process of photo transferring digital images is a reference to the 21st century, because when the political protest work was created in the 1960s we did not have computers or digital cameras.

In the Event of my Demise, by Esther Iverem.
‘In the Event of my Demise,’ by Esther Iverem.

Iverem: I work in fabric and most of the fabric I use comes from a variety of vintage jeans as well as camouflage and khaki that I find in area second-hand stores. I found the pants that are a part of “In the Event of My Demise” through this process and decided to use the front top half of them without cutting them up as I do for most quilts. The face and words of the slain hip-hop artist Tupac were already on the pants and I consider them a precious artifact of contemporary African American life and culture. I chose the background fabric and stripped in images of constellations as mapped in ancient Egypt, as well as images of the Middle Passage to add to the narrative of history and the ancient journey of souls.

Nat Turner, by RL Croft.
Nat Turner, by RL Croft.

Croft: Nat Turner is a sculpture from an early series called the Mental metal toys. Built in 1991, it followed the general inclination of boiling down larger issues into concise, conceptual icons, which generally took the form of small-to-modest sized, toy-like objects. The miniscule amount of factual information on the slave preacher became dwarfed by his impact on Southern history and Styron’s major modern-day novel (The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron). While growing up visiting family located in the county where he had lived, I was fascinated by the story of his rebellion. The prevailing racial attitudes of the sixties influenced my growing interest in African American history, and this was reinforced by gaining black teachers and classmates during integration. metaphorically illustrates the clash of Christian ideals and white society’s application of justice. The pulpit as gallows and vice versa.

How important was the choice of materials to you?

Iverem: The choice of materials is very important to me. That literal choice of materials determines the entire look, feel and meaning of my quilts. I juxtapose rough textures of jeans and other traditional “work” clothes with fabrics like silks and those with metallic finishes.

Croft: As for the choice of aluminum, my work has always been eclectic with materials, and aluminum products run the gamut of forms. I’ve built a fairly broad collection from scrap yards, thrift stores and yard sales for many years. It’s easy to wire brush to a dull sheen, as many of the early works appeared, and it comes in a palette of industrial paint colors. The aesthetic of welding didn’t appeal to me for what I was trying to “draw,” so nuts, bolts and pop rivets have been the prime methods for fastening..

Nat Turner fits into my oeuvre as one of the earliest sculptures, just as I was giving up painting. From 1980 to 1992, I’d taken a 12-year abstention from self-promotion and exhibition in order to find a path, and that led from oil on canvas to a transitional series called constructures (constructed pictures), and then to sculpture. Constructures were wall-hung panel works of many different materials including painting, all uniformly 60 inches in height, but varying in width and depth from the wall. They were meant to be shown alone or in groups, hence the uniform height.

Edwards: The choice of materials had to be strong to create an immediate response to the work. I wanted the viewer to experience what it would feel like to have gun casing pointing directly in their face while looking at the thumbnail photos of Black Men and White Police Officers. There are 92 images, some repetitive of Black men, white police officers and the families of murdered black men. There is also an image of President Obama in a hoodie. The images were photo transferred on board and laid within the red stripes of the American Flag. There are approximately 150 spent bullets within the work consisting of all bullet types used by American Police Officers in their handguns. And there are fifty pearls representing the 50 states in America. Pearls as a representation of tears dates back to the trail of tears of the Native Americans (Cherokee) as well as to European customs and culture. The word pearl is derived from the Latin word pirum which means pear reflecting the shape of the gem. Pearls are found inside the shells of mollusks such as an oyster, clam or mussel and are formed due to secretion of shelly substance around some irritating foreign particle. The idea that pearls are symbolic of tears arose from this fact and illustrates the old adage that the noblest achievements have their origin in painful and enduring efforts. Is that not very similar to the current life of the Black Face Boy?

The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy: A Visual Response to the Poem by Nikky Finney, is at the Brentwood Arts Exchange from May 23 – July 18, 2015.

R.L. Croft’s solo exhibition at Charles Krause Reporting Fine Art will be on view until June 20, 2015. See for more information.

[Note: ‘The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy’ was commissioned by The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. The Clarice has been working in conjunction with Brentwood Arts Exchange on the exhibit.]


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