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Gambit Weekly Remembering the Ancestors

By D. Eric Bookhardt

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  The hysteria may finally be petering out. The annual assault on federal art programs by rabid right-wingers went nowhere this year, as the National Endowment for the Arts survived recent Senate budget battles unscathed. Charges that the NEA was a plot by evil "multiculturalists" out to destroy America's national heritage somehow rang hollow in this nation of immigrants where "heritage" is often a question of who your ancestors are.

And even though most artists never receive a dime of direct funding from the NEA (which mainly supports institutions), the whole question of heritage and ancestors is never far from the surface of the art world. This is especially true in Radcliffe Bailey's large, multimedia pieces, in which antique photographic portraits are a pervasive presence. Most are sepia-tone photos of African-American adults and children out of the past. Formally posed and attired, they return our gaze with the impassive eyes of those who have seen much but are in no great rush to talk about it. Instead, it is their uncanny silence that speaks to us.

Silence can say many things, but in Bailey's work it serves as a poetic counterpoint to the lyrically percussive forms and vivid Caribbean colors that swirl around the images, energizing the space around their static photographic gazes. Balance is the key, and Bailey brokers the balances between colorful chaos and cool quiescence. As such, he is the guardian of the threshold, a role that in voodoo is performed by Elegue, or "Papa Legba."

In voodoo mythology, Legba is a wily old man, although his mercurial energy can make him youthful at times. Bailey, on the other hand, is a young Atlantan who invokes the ancestors to lend the gravitas of their mute testimony to his vortexes of jazz and samba-like energies. Those polarities are linked by ritualistic curved lines that recall the old wrought-iron grillwork found in Haiti and New Orleans as well as ornate, lacy "veves," the sacred diagrams of the various voodoo deities.

If all this sounds more musical and metaphysical than formal (in the art historical sense), such may be the artist's intent. Formalism can yield technically pristine work in the sense that, say, Dick Johnson's or George Dunbar's stuff is pristine. But some formalism all too easily becomes a kind of decoration, a surface effect phenomenon, no matter how this is rationalized. Bailey, on the other hand, is digging a deeper well in search of the juice, energy, or elan vital of creation itself, and his Afro-Caribbean sensibility provides an outlet for this shamanistic impulse. In fact, every great artist was also a shaman, and it hardly matters whether it was Bosch, van Gogh, Ernst, Picasso or some anonymous summoner of equatorial spirits in carved wood and pigment.

Ironically, it was Henri Matisse, a European white man with distinctly formal tendencies, who helped turn Europe's gaze to Africa. And Africa gave Matisse enough of a primal charge to save him from being merely decorative. Indeed, he found the link, the common ground between Euro and Afro cultures, and thus became an ancestor to artists of many races, as we see rather vaguely in Radcliffe Bailey and a bit more clearly in Malaika Favorite.

Radcliffe Bailey pays homage to his heritage with balance and silence.

Actually, Favorite, a veteran Baton Rouge artist, was once more decorously formal. But her work, while still sensually rich, has become somewhat more expressionistic in recent years. As with Bailey, Favorite is not content to simply paint on flat surfaces; she also sculpts her canvasses and incorporates found objects for their talismanic charge. We see this in People of the World, in which the people are arranged in ascending order around an actual flour sack from South Africa. It is painted in related colors and patterns (as is the picture frame), and while modest in size, the effect is monumental, a chromatic fugue of humanity evoking the murals of Orozco or Rivera. The painted sack and frame lend fluid form to what might be merely static. (And I can only wonder about a recent article on "found object" sculpture in which some hatchet-handed twit categorically dissed it all as "an overworked medium" -- as if metal sculpture and ordinary paintings on canvas were somehow scarce commodities these days. Go figure.)

Others, like A Thousand Tongues to Sing, convey Favorite's spiritual sensibilities, the soulful holism that impels her to mold canvases and employ odd items that bridge the gap between art as a "precious object" and the wider world at large. And such is the present challenge: to liberate art from its frozen, formal status in the gallery or designer home, the sterile catacombs of the corporation or academy, and return it to the marrow, the flesh and blood of life itself. Such is the tide that will eventually reshape the contours of the art world. .

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