Year Zero: Converting from VICE to Virtue

VICE

Just another corporate media platform.

On April 9, 2021, VICE, the digital media and broadcasting company that touts itself as “the definitive guide to enlightening information,” published a ghastly interview with Matt Loughrey, a successful 42-year-old Irish photo restorer who developed a lucrative career colorizing historic photos. The article was titled, These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again. It was subtitled, These portraits, recently colorized, humanize that tragedy. But that was all a lie. VICE and Loughrey’s efforts only “humanized” barbarism. In June of 2021 I stumbled upon this report quite by accident. Perhaps this essay can bring the story to a wider audience.

The VICE interview presented Loughrey’s colorized and digitally altered photos of prisoners held by the genocidal communist regime of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers), the radical Maoists who seized power and tormented the country from 1975 to 1979. Some two million Cambodians perished under the harsh rule of the Khmer Rouge; they died of preventable disease, starvation, torture, and a campaign of mass execution. As an artist, I have always felt unease concerning the colorization of historic black and white photos. That is because I also have a great interest in, and respect for history; attempts at rewriting history raises my ire. But what VICE and Loughrey did was outside the bounds of good judgement and decency.

Cell block at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cell block at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Loughrey based his altered colorized portraits on actual black and white prison induction photos the communists took of their captives before locking them up in Security Prison 21. Also known as S-21, the prison was located in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh.

Inside the prison starvation, interrogation, torture, and execution was the daily regimen. It held 20,000 prisoners, but only 7 left the building alive in 1979. There were 150 such camps across Cambodia, though Security Prison 21 was certainly the largest.

S-21 was not a mass execution center per se. When masses of detainees were marked for liquidation, they were trucked to Choeung Ek, a large “killing field” outside of Phnom Penh. Still, hundreds of innocent victims were dumped into unmarked graves on the grounds of S-21.

When the Khmer Rouge government was driven from power in 1979 by an invasion of the army of Vietnam, the S-21 death camp was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It continues to maintain an extensive archival collection documenting the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge. Part of that collection includes the S-21 prisoner photographs and the forced confessions detainees made under torture.

In his VICE interview Loughrey made the dubious claim that he colorized three S-21 photos for “a person in Cambodia” that had contacted him with the request; Loughrey offered no verification of such an appeal. VICE indicated that once Loughrey saw the size of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum photo archives, he decided to download and colorize even more images from the online source. In the interview he was quoted as saying: “The more I looked into it and the more images I saw, I thought, well, this has to be done.” VICE did not report he did so without permission from the museum. It is unknown how many images he filched.

Making things worse, and this is key, Loughrey went far beyond colorizing the photos, he changed the entire facial expressions of the prisoners by digitally painting smiles on their faces! The corners of their mouths curved upwards showing smile lines, their eyes were brightened, their cheeks were glowing. From their faux beaming smiles the prisoners looked as if they were attending a festive occasion rather than being shoved into a death camp. While VICE published Loughrey’ altered smiling photos, they did not publish the original photographs.

Unidentified men in Security Prison 21 are bound with rope and shackled together. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified men in Security Prison 21 are bound with rope and shackled together. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Without institutional backing, Loughrey colorized photos he lifted from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum website. That alone was a violation of the museum’s terms and conditions, which states its historic images must never be altered or modified. But painting smiles on the faces of innocent people who were tortured before they were executed… that is hard to fathom.

One reason for Loughrey’s chilly indifference as an “artist” is that, consciously or not, he is part of the postmodern art world, where spectacle and shock carry more weight than substance, and truth is just a social construct. His insensitivity reflects postmodern art stars like Jake and Dinos Chapman, who once clothed ghoulish Nazi mannequins in SS uniforms, replacing their swastika armbands with smiley faces, and exhibited the entire mess at the White Cube gallery in London. Loughrey’s act of painting smiles on the faces of Khmer Rouge victims was pure Chapman brothers—though liberal art institutions will likely receive Loughrey less favorably than they did the “brilliant” Jake and Dinos.

Loughrey’s postmodernist ethics are evident in his obsession with “restoring” historic black and white photographs by way of colorization. He has made a career out of “re-imagining” the past. As a visual artist who has intentionally created many artworks in glorious black and white, I would hate to see a technician in the future colorize my works. Likewise, when I view a photo of Paris taken by Louis Daguerre in 1830, I want to see the world as he and his colleagues saw it. I do not want his vision to be “restored” or “re-imagined.” Colorizing Daguerre’s unique photos would be a crime against art and history.

Imagine the outrage if someone painted smiley faces on the photos of those who died in Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz. In point of fact, Loughrey did something very close to that, provoking an angry response from the Auschwitz Museum (you will find the details if you continue reading). Most importantly, Loughrey and VICE committed an affront against the dignity of all Cambodian people, an abusive blow equal to a racist attack. The oh so progressive VICE did this, and it should never be forgotten.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

The unaltered, black and white prisoner photos from S-21 are haunting. Looking through those photos archived online by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, one young woman caught my eye. She is unidentified. Museum records state only that she was held in cell number 16 (indicated by the tags on her blouse), and that she was prisoner 3,753 (hand written on the photo by a Khmer Rouge guard). Aside from the fact that she died, everything else about her is a mystery.

It is difficult to interpret her expression; to me the young women looks as if she had seen too much evil and it no longer fazed her. That, or it was the demeanor of a woman who knew she was doomed. Before I discovered that Matt Loughrey had transformed Prisoner 3,753 into a gussied-up glamour doll, I chose to use the original unaltered photo to illustrate my essay. The altered photo reminds me of a lyric from a 1981 song by UK punk band, Crass: “Like a glamour billboard in a battlefield. At least the bloody-red poppy was of nature’s will.” Out of respect for the deceased, I will not post that altered colorized abomination to my article.

After VICE published Loughrey’s photos on April 9, 2021, Cambodian nationals and those in diaspora began to inveigh against the cruel racist provocation. April 10, 2021, the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, Illinois, issued a statement that read in part: “We do not endorse those that seek to profit and benefit from the violent and lived traumas of our past and current history. Minimizing the pain and trauma of our community from those who are not connected to the experience is not only revising and erasing history, it’s a violent act.”

On April 11, 2021, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) located in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, issued a statement that read in part: “MCFA does not accept this kind of manipulation, and considers this work of Matt Loughrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia’s history, and in violation of the rights of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs.”

April 11, 2021 statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kingdom of Cambodia.

April 11, 2021 statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kingdom of Cambodia.

On April 16, 2021, the Auschwitz Museum located on the grounds of the former Nazi concentration camp in Poland, tweeted a message of solidarity with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In that dispatch the Auschwitz Museum made known they had contacted Matt Loughrey and asked him to remove from his Instagram account, a color animation he created of Czesława Kwoka. He refused. Kwoka was a 14-year-old girl who died in Auschwitz on March 12, 1943. She was a Polish Catholic and one of the approximately 230,000 children the Nazis sent to the camp for extermination. Only around 650 children survived Auschwitz.

Tweets from the Auschwitz Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, April, 2021.

Tweets from the Auschwitz Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, April, 2021.

Not surprisingly, without permission Matt Loughrey made his animation of Kwoka with images owned by the Auschwitz Museum. He used an imaging technique he developed called X-Oculi, arrogantly describing it as “a combination of unrivaled artistry and cutting edge orbital motion-tracking.” After refusing the reasonable request of the Auschwitz Museum, the pretentious Loughrey no doubt received a tidal wave of negative criticism. On April 16, 2021, the offending animation was taken down from Instagram without comment or fanfare.

A petition demanding that Matt Loughrey apologize “for the theft, manipulation and appropriation of these photographs,” and that VICE apologize for “publication and support of Matt Loughrey’s work” was initiated by Dany Pen and 7 other Cambodians. Pen lost her family members at the S-21 death camp, she had biting words for VICE:

“I strongly implore VICE to take down these photos that are promoting white supremacy, cultural appropriation, cultural erasure, and victim dismissal. It promotes harm and brings on psychological and emotional violence towards my Cambodian community.”

It is troubling that our time has produced characters like Matt Loughrey, as well as sensationalist rags like VICE. Loughrey’s website touts his “ambitious photo colorization project” as “an option for museums and libraries to upgrade and re-imagine their own visitor experiences.” With no sense of irony his website bears a masthead reading “Bridging a gap between history & art.” He dared to write, “we find ourselves in an age of image obsolescence,” and that his digital skills are “a form of visual defense against this.” He spouted even more rubbish with, “collections are being rescued, detail and character that could never be seen in the original images is being uncovered.” All while the ne’er-do-well erased history and painted a happy face on genocide.

Loughrey’s website makes no mention of insulting and hurting the Cambodian people. He does however brag that “current and previous clients include: DELL, 21st Century Fox, National Parks Service, BBC, ABC Australia, The New York Post, The Guardian, The Times, National Geographic and more.” If they had any principles these supporting companies would wash their hands of Loughrey. He should delete his websites and slink away, hoping no one will recall his depravity.

On April 11, 2021, the “editorial leadership” of VICE issued a short and confused statement that they were taking down the Loughrey photos and interview. Saying the photos were “manipulated beyond colorization” and the “story did not meet the editorial standards of VICE,” they called publishing the materials an “error.” VICE did not have an editor informed enough to realize at first glance that the photos were drastically altered. If the interview and photos did not meet the lofty editorial standards of VICE why publish them in the first place? The genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge remains a historically earth shaking story, but the vacant millennials running the show at VICE have blank memories. The remarks from VICE “leadership” is an admission the company has absolutely failed as a legitimate news organization. On April 16, 2021, they released an updated statement that was closer to an apology—but still worthless. I have entirely lost my patience with poseurs who feign humanitarianism.

On April, 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo, AP.

On April, 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo, AP.

I was 21-years-old when the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh on the morning of April 17, 1975. That same day they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities. By force of arms they marched everyone into the countryside to undertake the building of an agrarian utopia. In doing so they closed schools, factories, and hospitals; the sick and infirmed were forced to march, so too children and the elderly—thousands died along the way as food, water, and medical care were not provided. At the time, reports coming out of Phnom Penh were unsettling. When I saw the photo of a Khmer Rouge soldier pointing his 1911 pistol at shop owners, demanding they abandon their businesses and leave the city, I knew Cambodia was doomed. Because of the Vietnam war, I had been following politics in Southeast Asia since the mid-60s as an idealistic pre-Teen, so I knew of the Khmer Rouge. But they were about to give me, and the world, a lesson in medievalist savagery.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, who was referred to as “Brother Number One,” declared the communist takeover to be “Year Zero,” the beginning of an era when all vestiges of the past would be destroyed. Straight away, all money, banking, private property, and religions were abolished. The liquidation of the regime’s enemies started. Anyone who represented the past—educated middle-class professionals, technicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, were all exterminated. Wearing eyeglasses or speaking a foreign language could identify a person as an intellectual to be executed. Everyone in Year Zero Cambodia was forced to wear Khmer black pajamas and the traditional red and white gingham Krama scarf. To do otherwise was dangerous.

The “Marxists” of the Khmer Rouge envisioned the country’s peasants building communism through collective labor and people’s communes. They applied Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” to their nation. In fact the Chinese Communist Party backed the Khmer Rouge, giving them political support and endless military supplies. But the Red Khmers also viewed the ancient 12th century Angkor Empire of Cambodia as an agrarian utopia to be replicated. They called their nation “Kampuchea,” using the Khmer pronunciation of Cambodia. They referred to their leaders as “The Angkar” (The Organization). And on Jan. 5, 1976, they presented the official red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” which incorporated a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow. The Khmer Rouge were nothing if not ethnic and national supremacists.

The Khmer Rouge red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” incorporating a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow.

The Khmer Rouge red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” incorporating a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow.

Once taking power the intolerant Khmer Rouge began to annihilate 1000s of ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham people. Condemning religion as “detrimental,” the Khmer Rouge targeted Christians, Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists for extermination.

In 1975 they destroyed the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Phnom Penh, taking it apart stone by stone until there was nothing left. It was one of 73 Catholic churches destroyed in Year Zero.

In 1975 there were 66,000 Buddhist monks and 4,000 Buddhist temples. Before the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, they murdered more than 25,000 monks and obliterated 1,968 temples.

Two reporters were working together in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge surrounded the capital—Cambodian photojournalist and interpreter Dith Pran (1942-2008), and NYTimes reporter Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016). Schanberg was one of the last Western journalists to stay in the city. The two witnessed the communist army take the city. In his last dispatch Schanberg wrote: “Most of the soldiers are teenagers. They are universally grim, robot-like, brutal. Weapons drip from them like fruit from trees… grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”

The Khmer Rouge wasted no time in unleashing large scale looting and executions. The two reporters were captured by guerrillas Schanberg described as “maniacal.” The two were threatened with death, and only the pleas of Pran saved them from being executed in the street. They took refuge in the French embassy compound along with a throng of desperate foreigners. Being Cambodian Pran was dragged from the embassy by the Khmer Rouge and marched into the countryside; they expelled Schanberg and the other Westerners from the embassy and trucked them to Thailand. As Schanberg noted: “With this act, Cambodia was sealed. The world could not look in. The killing could begin.”

The perilous journey of Dith Pran had just begun. He ended up in a Khmer Rouge work camp as a slave laborer—all for the good of the new “Democratic Kampuchea.” His captors fed him a tablespoon of rice a day, he supplemented his ration with an occasional beetle or small lizard he would secretly catch. He experienced beatings, torture, starvation, and witnessed endless executions. Pran endured four years of this, and when Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 he broke out of the camp and escaped over the Thai border. His 60 mile flight to freedom had him slogging through muddy fields filled with decomposing human corpses. These were the execution grounds where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered over a million people. Pran dubbed them the “killing fields.”

Excavated grave pit at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Excavated grave pit at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Today the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center stands outside Phnom Penh, it is built on one of the largest Khmer Rouge killing fields. Once an orchard before it was turned into a death camp, there are 129 mass graves in Choeung Ek. Heavy rains still uncover human teeth, bone fragments, and bits of clothing. A Buddhist “stupa” monument commemorating the dead stands in the middle of the killing field. Its plexiglass walls are filled with more than 8,000 skulls found onsite. Many of the skulls show evidence of having been bashed. To save ammunition the Khmer Rouge made victims kneel at the edge of a large pit, then clubbed their heads with steel bars or agricultural hoes; victims fell into the mass grave.

A “killing tree” is also found at Choeung Ek. Whole families were murdered at the camp, including babies. Khmer Rouge guards held toddlers by the ankles, then swung their heads into the tree. The tiny smashed bodies were tossed into a nearby open pit. Despite the communist aim of totally eradicating Buddhist “leeches and worms,” today the tree is covered in Buddhist string bracelets left by visitors as spiritual gifts to the slain little ones.

In 1980 Sydney Schanberg published his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. The book served as the basis for the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, which depicted the agonies of Cambodia as seen through the experiences of Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg. The book and the film brought international attention to the tragedy that had befallen Cambodia. If VICE really wanted to “restore” the history of Cambodia and “humanize” the tragedy, they would have recited the tale of Dith Pran to an audience completely unfamiliar with his saga. Instead, VICE published the vulgarities of braggart Matt Loughrey.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cambodians were not the only ones tortured and murdered at the S-21 death camp. In 1978 the Khmer Rouge “navy” captured two hapless young Americans who were sailing off the coast of Cambodia. Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were sent to S-21 where they were tortured for 40 days. The Khmer Rouge were sadistic torturers who employed a variety of techniques in their “interrogations.” They forced prisoners to eat human feces, ripped out fingernails, burned detainees with hot wires or cigarettes, used electric shock, pushed needles under fingernails, administered beatings with sticks or electric wire, used water-boarding and other methods of drowning detainees, and covered victims with centipedes and scorpions.

Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were tortured until they signed “confessions” that they were CIA agents. The commander of S-21 was Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Duch.” After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch testified at his trial that he was given orders by Pol Pot’s right hand man to “destroy all human beings from S-21” before the army of Vietnam arrived. That included Americans Deeds and Delance. They were bound, wrapped in gasoline soaked tires, and set on fire. They were gruesomely executed two days before Vietnamese soldiers liberated the camp. The Vietnamese discovered the prison by following the stench of the many burned bodies left to rot and decompose in the tropical heat. Perhaps Matt Loughrey will digitally paint the two Americans with happy smiling faces.

It is an irony that Cambodian artist Vann Nath (1946-2011) occupied the cell next to where Michael Deeds was locked up. The artist was one of 7 detainees who survived Security Prison 21. Prior to 1975 he made a living painting landscapes and film posters, but in 1977 he ran afoul of the Khmer Rouge and they put him in S-21. Every evening Vann Nath would watch guards pull Deeds from his cell, dragging him elsewhere for “interrogation.” The artist would see the guards return hours later to dump their tortured victim into his cell, where he would forlornly sing to himself. Today, the paintings of Vann Nath are permanently displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Each a depiction of unspeakable brutality, each a condemnation of tyranny. VICE never did a story about Vann Nath, no, they chose to interview the no account Matt Loughrey.

A prisoner interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Oil painting by Cambodian artist Vann Nath. The painting is in the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum collection

A prisoner interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Oil painting by Cambodian artist Vann Nath. The painting is in the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum collection

In the end, the excesses of the Khmer Rouge sealed their fate. Their xenophobic hatred of ethnic Vietnamese—who settled in Cambodia long ago, caused the Khmer Rouge to massacre them by the thousands. By 1977 the Khmer Rouge were crossing into Vietnam with troops and artillery to attack Vietnamese towns and villages. The last straw came when a large force of heavily armed Khmer Rouge marched four miles into Vietnam and slaughtered over 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in the Ba Chúc massacre on April 18, 1978. On Dec. 25, 1978, Vietnam launched the invasion of “Democratic Kampuchea,” rapidly crushing the lion’s share of Khmer Rouge fighters and overthrowing the Pol Pot regime. On Jan. 7, 1979 Vietnam rolled into Phnom Penh, effectively putting an end to the genocide.

Remnant Khmer Rouge dead enders retreated to jungle enclaves near the Thai border and continued their fight (which of course was backed by Communist China). In 1998 a Khmer Rouge officer put the ailing Pol Pot under house arrest, but Brother Number One died that same year. In 2006 the Cambodian government and the UN established the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” where the remaining three Khmer Rouge leaders were tried and sentenced. In 2012 Duch was jailed for life for having run the S-21 death camp. In 2014 Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two) and Khieu Samphan (Khmer Rouge head of state) were sentenced to life for crimes against humanity for their roles in the Year Zero forced evacuations. In 2018 Chea and Samphan were found guilty of genocide for the mass extermination of Vietnamese Cambodians.

VICE supposedly captured the millennial focused market in 2015 with its “alternative” approach to news. Needless to say, I always perceived VICE as just another corporate media platform to be avoided. Now, with their self-inflicted Khmer Rouge wound destroying their carefully constructed “progressive” image, my viewpoint has been vindicated. As for VICE being “the definitive guide to enlightening information,” that pretense was destroyed in a Year Zero of their own making. It is long overdue that journalists convert from a life of vice, to a life of virtue. After all, dictionaries define “vice” as a “wicked, immoral, corrupt, and depraved” practice.

Unidentified male prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified male prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Sanford Biggers Is Not An Oracle

On May 11, 2021 the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article with the headline, This Monumental ‘Oracle’ Statue in NYC Subverts Traditional Sculpture. Artist Sanford  Biggers was being touted by the magazine as the first artist to be invited by the Rockefeller Center to take over their campus with a multimedia survey exhibition. He was also being applauded for exhibiting his 25-foot tall Oracle bronze statue at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center. The statue is considered the centerpiece of the Biggers take over.

“Oracle.” Sanford Biggers. Bronze. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

“Oracle.” Sanford Biggers. Bronze. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

Whatever profundity the Oracle bronze supposedly possesses is outweighed by its absurdity; it is hard to take seriously.

The enormous African head teetering on top of a Lilliputian Greco-Roman figure holding a golden torch, does not provoke deep thought, but laughter. It reminds one of the jackalope, that faux American critter created by a 1930s taxidermist who grafted antlers onto the head of a jackrabbit carcass.

Oracle is part of Biggers’ Chimera project, it is the largest statue in that series. His Chimera sculptures, some of which are exhibited at the Rockefeller Center, combine African masks with classical European depictions of the body.

In the case of Oracle, humongous size is not matched by a beauty of equal magnitude.

Aside from its droll unsightliness, there is a three-ring circus side-show angle to Oracle. Biggers outfitted the statue with an interactive component allowing the public to ask the sculpture questions, once they activate a QR code. According to the artist, Oracle answers with the voices of “various celebrities” (well of course—there must be celebrities), and the responses will be “mysterious, poetic vagaries which will hopefully be, if not helpful, at least mystifying.” Perhaps Oracle could soothsay how far away in the future it will be before Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa speaks with a QR code initiated celebrity voice.

On a wide, double stepped, white platform, the Oracle sits on its royal black throne. Emblazoned on the seat of power one finds a repeated circular image of what appears to be a lotus blossom. A closer look reveals each petal of the lotus is the cross-section of a slave ship filled with its human cargo. It is an accursed flower, and it is Biggers’ vision of America.

The exhibition includes sculptures, mixed media “paintings” made on antique quilts, video, audio, a “mural” (if you choose to call a Photoshop file printed by an inkjet printer a mural), and flags, because, what would an art exhibition be without flags?

“Rockefeller Center Plaza.” Photo by the Wurts Brothers, circa 1934. Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” is in the foreground, while Lee Lawrie’s “Wisdom with Sound and Light” can be glimpsed in the background.

“Rockefeller Center Plaza.” Photo by the Wurts Brothers, circa 1934. Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” is in the foreground, while Lee Lawrie’s “Wisdom with Sound and Light” can be glimpsed in the background.

Rockefeller Center combines two building complexes, the original fourteen office buildings that were built in the 1930s in the Art Deco style, and four towers built in the 1960s and 70s in the International architecture style. American architect Raymond Hood was the chief architect. Biggers compared himself to Hood, saying “When Raymond Hood was designing this complex, he was grabbing from stories from antiquity, mythology, art, to wind up with this beautiful Art Deco monument. I wanted to reference various cultures and histories as well.”

The prodigious Raymond Hood was not “grabbing” bits from the past to “wind up” with an assemblage—that is the methodology of postmoderns like Biggers. Hood studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture, and in 1911 he graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. His designs were meticulous, purposeful, and pragmatic, bearing Neo-Gothic or Art Deco embellishments. The mythology and art he was supposedly grabbing were the ancient Greek building blocks that Western civilization rests upon; foundations forsaken by postmodernists. Oracle is presumably the dubious stand-in for the “various cultures and histories” that Biggers mentioned.

“Chimaera fighting Bellerophon.” Ceramic cup, circa 575 BC. The black-figure style painting was created by the ancient Athenian artist today known as the “Heidelberg Painter.” Bellerophon was a hero monster slayer who captured and rode the winged horse named Pegasus.

“Chimera fighting Bellerophon.” Ceramic cup, circa 575 BC. The black-figure style painting was created by the ancient Athenian artist today known as the “Heidelberg Painter.” Bellerophon was a hero monster slayer who captured and rode the winged horse named Pegasus.

As with all of Biggers’ works at the Rockefeller Center, the Chimera sculptures are consumed by identity politics—an Afrocentric vision to be precise. So it is odd that he named his sculpture series after the Chimera of ancient Greece, a mythic fire-breathing female creature that was a hybrid of lion, goat, and snake. All of his exhibited works have the intent of dethroning “whiteness” in Western art. They are an attempt to supplant European mythos with blackness. In the language of artspeak, the artist “explores historical depictions of the body and their subsequent myths, narratives, perceptions, and power.” That is a tad more palatable than just saying “he kicks Western civilization in the teeth.”

According to Biggers the Oracle head is based on masks from various African cultures, including those created by the Luba people of the Congo, and the Maasai tribal group inhabiting parts of Kenya and Tanzania. I am left wondering, how does the king-like Oracle come to represent all of Africa? In modern Africa there are fifty-four countries—only one of them, Eswatini (Swaziland), is an absolute monarchy. The two others, Lesotho and Morocco, are constitutional monarchies. It seems Biggers is partial to the supreme power of an African king over the democratic rule of the people. In his view Oracle completes “the rest of the story” told by the classical European statues of Rockefeller Center. He says that Oracle contains “a lot of African elements.” Yet, when studying real world African art, those “African elements” appear to be dreamed up.

Biggers noted the body of Oracle was inspired by the Statue of Zeus that once sat in the Temple of Zeus in ancient Olympia, Greece. Difficult to imagine, since no accurate copies of the statue survive; the temple and its statue were destroyed long ago by earthquakes and fires. In 457 BC the sculptor Phidias created the 40-foot high chryselephantine sculpture of Zeus, King of the Olympian Gods. In this type of sculpture, gold (chrysos) depicted garments and accoutrements, while ivory (elephantinos) represented flesh. It is said Zeus was depicted with his outstretched right hand holding a statue of Nike, goddess of victory. His left hand held a scepter where an eagle perched. The statue became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That will not be the destiny of Oracle.

Historically the Smithsonian and other art institutions have had few problems discerning persons from gods in artifacts from the ancient world. However the Smithsonian Magazine described Oracle as a “person or deity with an enormous head who sits majestically on a throne.” The statement seems confused because there is no tangible history behind Oracle, no celebrated personages, no gods, no legendary event, just a wan metaphor for black superiority. It is a mash-up where a simulacrum of ancient Greece is pitted against Biggers’ imagined “African elements,” and the winner is Wakanda, the fictional sub-Saharan country made-up by Marvel Comics.

“Seigaiha.” Sanford Biggers. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

“Seigaiha.” Sanford Biggers. 2021. Photo Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund.

Let us examine the flag series titled Seigaiha that Biggers said he created for the Rockefeller Center flagpoles. Media accounts report the blue flags display “a unique wave illustration designed by Biggers.” The artist says the flags with their wave patterns in white, are meant to represent the Middle Passage Slave Trade that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas. However, seigaiha is a Japanese word that means “blue ocean waves.” It describes a particular design element in Japanese art that consists of concentric circles symbolizing waves. It is obvious Japan had absolutely nothing to do with the Middle Passage Slave Trade, so why did Biggers bring Japanese culture into his denunciation of slavery?

"Rough Waves" pattern by artist Mariko Garcia ©

"Rough Waves" pattern by artist Mariko Garcia ©

The “unique wave illustration” was not “designed by Biggers.” It was hand drawn by New York based artist Mariko Garcia and based on the Japanese “Nami” design representing powerful, churning ocean waves. Garcia titled her drawing “Rough Waves” and made it available on merchandising sites like Adobe, Shutterstock, and Pixers.

On those platforms you will not find her design listed under “Middle Passage” or “Slave Trade.” Apparently Biggers took Garcia’s Rough Wave textile, had someone sew it up in flag form, then passed it off as his own design and claimed the turbulent waves represented the Middle Passage Slave Trade. How does this pass for significant art? Biggers’ Seigaiha flags have nothing to do with slavery, and everything to do with plagiarism.

Likely the most ridiculous thing about Biggers’ Oracle is that it is being juxtaposed to the celebrated masterworks associated with the Rockefeller Center building, particularly the works of American artists Lee Lawrie and Paul Manship. Those two virtuosos created works of irrefutable skill and artistry, and today their art continues to be enjoyed by the public at large for accomplished craft and timeless beauty. How tragic that postmodernism first obliterated, then blotted out the memory and concept of beauty in art. No one stands before an original Biggers to whisper in awe, “that is so exquisite, how did he do that?” Although some might say “why did he do that?” Poor betrodden Beauty, against her will she has been forced into a longterm hiatus.

“Atlas.” Lee Lawrie/Rene Paul Chambellan. Bronze sculpture. 1937. Photo: Michael Greene

“Atlas.” Lee Lawrie/Rene Paul Chambellan. Bronze sculpture. 1937. Photo: Michael Greene

In 1936 Lee Lawrie and fellow sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan created Atlas, a 45-foot-tall, seven-ton bronze statue for Rockefeller Center that stands outside the building at 630 5th Ave. Essentially Lawrie created sketches and models of the statue to be, and Chambellan translated them into sculptural form.

The ancient Greeks believed Zeus, King of the Gods, condemned Atlas to hold up the sky with his shoulders for eternity. Lawrie and Chambellan depicted Atlas shouldering the sky by showing him bearing an enormous armillary sphere, the astronomical tool representing the heavens used by the Greeks.

On the celestial sphere you can see the Greco-Roman planet symbols for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Lawrie was one of the greatest sculptors of his day. His creations include architectural sculptures on the 1926 Los Angeles Public Library, and the 1939 bas-relief bronze doors on the John Adams building of the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Those doors included twelve figures depicting gods or heroes from ancient Mexico, China, India, Mesopotamia, Greece, Persia, Germany, and North America, all associated with the advent of writing. The artworks are an example of the “diversity and inclusion” today’s radicals say are lacking in the American cultural landscape.

“Wisdom.” Lee Lawrie. Limestone sculptural relief panel. 1933. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

“Wisdom.” Lee Lawrie. Limestone sculptural relief panel. 1933. Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

Lee Lawrie created a second tour de force for the Rockefeller Center—relief sculpture panels known as Wisdom with Sound and Light that sit over the main entrance doors.

Lawrie carved the panels from limestone and collaborated with artist and polychromist Leon V. Solon, who painted and gilded the sculptures. Solon advocated Architectural Polychromy, the decorative painting of stone buildings to make them more elegant and harmonizing. He made the following statement regarding his work:

“Color is a terrific force when introduced into an architectural combination, and is capable of producing an effect upon the observer equaled only by the fascination which firearms possess for small boys.”

The politically correct will no doubt be horrified. Perhaps they shall cancel the artworks of Lawrie and Solon.

In 1934 American artist Paul Manship created the statue titled Prometheus, seen in the lower Plaza of Rockefeller Center. His pre-Olympian Titan god of fire is an 18-foot-tall, eight-ton bronze sculpture gilded with gold. The ancient Greeks believed Prometheus created humanity from clay. It is said he stole fire from Zeus, and gifted it to humans.

“Prometheus.” Paul Manship. Gilded bronze sculpture. 1934. Photo: Will Powell.

“Prometheus.” Paul Manship. Gilded bronze sculpture. 1934. Photo: Will Powell.

Enraged by that act Zeus condemned Prometheus to eternal torment by having him bound to a rock, where an eagle would come to eat his liver. The liver grew back every night, and each morning the eagle returned to feast.

Manship depicted Prometheus clutching the stolen fire in his right hand as he falls through a gigantic ring representing the heavens. The red granite wall behind the statue is inscribed with the paraphrased words of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

And what fire does Biggers bring? His Just Us mural on exhibit at the Rockefeller Center is a confused muddle in every sense. It is a Photoshop creation printed on an inkjet printer. It has all the gravitas of a pamphlet printed at a commercial print shop; its political message is baffling as well. During the 60s, radical civil rights activists said American justice was accessible only to white men, referring to US jurisprudence as “Just Us.” But who speaks the phrase in the Biggers mural, oppressor or oppressed? Is it a badge of honor or a victim’s fear? Why do the words hang in the heavens like an irreligious joke? Are we expected to be impressed with ambiguity? Just Us is too arcane to be a political statement, and even less noteworthy as a mural. Muralism has fallen from its once commanding position into the abyss of lowbrow kitsch, graffiti, and other postmodern inanities. That is where you find Biggers.

Biggers believes his Oracle bronze statue is a necessary companion to Lawrie’s and Manship’s bronze statues, because he imagines he has provided the missing puzzle piece of the African experience. Without naming a particular building or artwork, Biggers told the media that all throughout Rockefeller Center, “there are smaller symbols of the triangle trade and the slave trade. You see references to tobacco and cotton and sugar.” The press published his allegations without question or objection. You might think an explicit accusation that racist iconography is part of the architecture of Rockefeller Center might be cause for a journalistic investigation. Nope. Journalism is dead.

“Industries of the British Empire.” Bronze panel, Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933. Photo: Wally Gobetz

“Industries of the British Empire.” Bronze panel, Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933. Photo: Wally Gobetz

Biggers was alluding to the Rockefeller Center’s British Empire Building, designed by Raymond Hood to house British governmental and commercial offices.

In the early 1930s artist Carl Paul Jennewein created Industries of the British Empire, a huge relief panel in bronze for placement above the entrance door. The 18-foot high by 11-foot wide, blackened patina bronze panel was decorated with nine gilded allegorical figures representing the vital industries of the British Empire—Salt, Wheat, Wool, Coal, Fish, Cotton, Tobacco, and Sugar.

Eight of the laborers had tumbling gilded letters spelling out their industry placed next to them. European laborers from the British Isles, Canada, and Australia were identified with fish, coal, wool, and wheat.

Biggers might be shocked to find Jennewein identified those in his bronze panel working with sugar, tobacco, and salt, as workers from the subcontinent of India, not African slaves from the Middle Passage Slave Trade.

In 1792 the British Crown found it cheaper to produce sugar in British India than on Caribbean islands. Jennewein’s artwork showed an Indian man working with sugar cane, an Indian woman with tobacco plants, and another carrying a bag of salt. Jennewein’s artworks unintentionally exposed colonialism at work in India—but Biggers payed no attention.

“East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” Blue glass sugar bowl with gilt letters. 1820-1830. Made in Great Britain, merchandise like this was exported to anti-slavery activists in America. Photo Andreas Praefcke

“East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” Blue glass sugar bowl with gilt letters. 1820-1830. Made in Great Britain, merchandise like this was exported to anti-slavery activists in America. Photo Andreas Praefcke

He will not tell you that in 1791 British citizens by the hundreds of thousands were buying sugar from India where slavery was not used, and were spooning their Indian sugar out of abolitionist bowls inscribed with “East India Sugar not made by Slaves.” American abolitionists did likewise.

If Biggers does not understand the importance of salt in India’s Independence movement against British colonialism, he should read a few books on the subject.

Of the nine gilded allegorical figures in Jennewein’s bronze, only one portrayed an African—a woman working with cotton. Is Biggers also unaware that in the late 1800’s African cotton fed the British textile industry, and slaves from the Triangle Trade had nothing to do with it?

In Sudan the British Empire defeated Islamic fundamentalist leader Muhammad Ahmad in 1898, he claimed to be the Mahdi (“Guided One”), the deliverer and restorer of true Islam. His Mahdist army had established an Islamic State in Sudan that stretched from the Red Sea to Central Africa. After vanquishing the Mahdi and his caliphate, Sudan became a source of cotton for the growing British textile industry; it also gave access to the Nile, expanding British markets and suppliers.

Bronze figure gilded in gold representing sugar production in India. From “Industries of the British Empire” by Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933.

Bronze figure gilded in gold representing sugar production in India. From “Industries of the British Empire” by Carl Paul Jennewein, 1933.

Recall that Biggers said relief sculptures in Rockefeller Center depicted “symbols of the triangle trade and the slave trade.” But the history of colonialism and empire is complicated. During the Triangle Trade Great Britain sent trade goods such as cloth, iron goods, guns, and rum to Africa.

Many powerful African empires like the Kingdom of Benin (1440-1897), traded enormous numbers of black captives for those goods. The estimated number of captive slaves traded away by various African empires reaches as high as 20 million.

The Kingdom of Benin sold slaves to British, French, and Portuguese merchants for over 200 years. The slaves were shipped to the West Indies and the Americas. From England’s 13 Colonies, rum, iron ore, timber, furs, rice, indigo dye, and other goods were shipped to Great Britain, beginning the process anew.

Nothing I write here denies the ugly blot of the Middle Passage Slave Trade and the inhuman treatment of African people at the hands of slave traders. The empires of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain mercilessly partitioned and exploited Africa. However, the Transatlantic Slave Trade would have been impossible without the partnership of slave trading African empires, who enslaved fellow Africans for material gain.

If an artist is going to confront the monstrous history of slavery, then fabrication and calumny are not the colors to paint with. It should also be remembered that France abolished slavery in 1794, Great Britain did so in 1833, and on December 6, 1865, slavery was ended in the United States—and the cost was the death of some 365,000 Union soldiers. Modern day slavery continues to exist in the world today, but “progressive” artists have very little to say about it.

What does Mr. Biggers say about the nation of Mauritania, also known as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, where the “peculiar institution” bleeds into the present. Historically Arab Mauritanians enslaved the Haratin black Mauritanians. Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, yet did not end slavery until 1981; it was the last country on earth to abolish slavery. According to the BBC it did not criminalize slavery until 2015. In 2017 the BBC reported 600,000 Mauritanians were held in human bondage. Despite all of that Mauritania was allowed to join the UN Human Rights Council in 2020!

So, where are the paintings, videos, audio recordings, murals, flags, and statues by Biggers exposing modern day chattel slavery in Mauritania? It is so much easier to bash Western Civilization for the umpteenth time, while giving an encore recitation on the crimes of “whiteness.”

Biggers’ racialist politics are barely camouflaged by postmodern aesthetics and artspeak; he stands with those who want to “decolonize” the art institutions of the Western world. They are convinced American and European Classical art are linked to white supremacy and its “colonial project.” A writer at the leftist art periodical Hyperallergic succinctly made the point: “America’s encyclopedic museums originated from worldviews not that different from those of today’s white supremacists and nationalists.” Another frenzied dilettanti from the same journal proposed the abolition of museums because they deploy violence “against black bodies, brown bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, colonized bodies, queer bodies, immigrant bodies, disabled bodies, poor bodies, as well as violence against the cultures that these bodies create and move through.”

I am horrified that a layer of contemporary leftists are arguing for the abolishment of museums in Europe and America. They insist museums be “reimagined” (I have come to loath that word), because they think those institutions are “at war” with people of color. That canard has a familiar ring, it reminds me of the Khmer Rouge communists who seized Cambodia in 1975. They declared they would “abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously.” [¹] The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot called the reign of terror “Year Zero.” And so they “reimagined” Cambodia by smashing every vestige of bourgeois society, art, culture, religion, and old traditions. Those “corrupted by imperialistic ideas,” and there were some 1.3 million of them—were executed. It was Pol Pot’s “Great Reset.”

Biggers and his art world allies want you to believe there has been a failure to “understand” classical European art as a “white-washed” history where people of color have been ignored. The decolonize art crowd maintains that classical European sculptures of white marble were once painted in bright colors, true—if speaking of the marble and bronze sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, but that hardly encompasses the total output of Europe’s classical sculptures. Some insist the Renaissance aesthetic was a “mistake”! Roman statues unearthed in the 15th century were stripped of color by time and the elements, so artists of that period mistakenly deduced the statues had always been white. From the racialist view it follows that from then on, creating white marble statues was only “normalizing whiteness.”

Renaissance artists had good reason to sculpt from white Carrara marble, mined in Italy since the days of ancient Rome—it had nothing to do with race. Freshly quarried Carrara marble is generally soft and easy to carve, it possesses minimal veining which makes the surface consistent, it has a fine grain that captures detail, and it can be polished to extraordinary effect. Most important of all, white Carrara marble has a certain translucency, making it perfect for modeling the human form. Michelangelo (1475–1564) used Carrara marble to carved his Pietà and David masterworks. Renaissance artists made an aesthetic leap by introducing a natural, realistic treatment of subjects, infusing them with emotive power. Form, texture, the play of light across marble, was thought essential. The idea of painting such statues was unthinkable.

“John Brown.” Edmonia Lewis. Plaster. 1876

“John Brown.” Edmonia Lewis. Plaster. 1876

Biggers and the coterie around him will likely never mention Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907). She was the first African American sculptor to gain national and international recognition for her sculptures.

She studied sculpture in Boston, where she met abolitionists like John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—commander of the Union Army’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment composed of free black men.

She created portrait busts of John Brown and Colonel Shaw after their deaths. Brown was hanged for treason on Dec. 2, 1859 for his raid on the Harpers Ferry federal armory. The US Civil War began on April, 12, 1861, and Lewis created her plaster sculpture of Brown in 1864. A year later the American Civil War ended on May 9, 1865.

On July 18, 1863 Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th, attacked Confederate held Fort Wagner in South Carolina. They were cut to ribbons by fire from the 1,700 Confederates in the fortress. Of the six hundred soldiers in the 54th, 250 were killed or wounded.

“Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” Edmonia Lewis. White Carrara marble. 1864

“Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” Edmonia Lewis. White Carrara marble. 1864

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed on the ramparts while fighting in hand to hand combat. At the bottom of her marble portrait of Colonel Shaw, where the bust meets its pedestal, Edmonia Lewis carved the words, “Martyr For Freedom.”

A surviving member of the 54th, William Harvey Carney, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. He carried the American flag into combat and planted it on the parapets. When the Rebels forced the 54th to retreat under fire, he brought the flag back with him despite being shot four times. Carney never let the American flag touch the ground.

Lewis’ portrait bust of Colonel Shaw was purchased by the Shaw family, who gave the artist permission to make plaster replicas of the bust to help advance the Union cause; Lewis created and sold 100 of these for five dollars each.

On a related note, the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), created the bronze Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment that sits at the edge of Boston Common in Massachusetts. At a Black Lives Matter protest on May 31, 2020, the monument was vandalized with giant spray-painted red and black graffiti that read; “RIP George Floyd,” “All Cops Are Bastards,” “BLM,” and “FUCK 12” (twelve being a reference to police). Who shall tell the spirits of the 54th that Black Lives Matter defiled their monument?

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, defaced with BLM graffiti, May 31, 2020. Source: Twitter

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, defaced with BLM graffiti, May 31, 2020. Source: Twitter

I am unsure if Sanford Biggers is exhibiting his 2017 artwork titled Overstood at the Rockefeller Center, but it is worth mentioning to fully understand his body of work. Wrapped in his “African cultural perspective” cloak, Biggers uses the Jamaican patois word “overstand” to replace “understand” in the title. The artist described his work with the following:

“Inspired by a photo of a 1968 Black Panther Party protest and emanating from hand carved power objects on the floor, four larger than life elders look down on centuries of systemic disenfranchisement, pathological extrajudicial practices of the US government towards Black Americans, and the culture that allows these to persist. They witness, stand over and “overstand” that change must come.”

“Overstood.” Sanford Biggers. Sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, glitter, polystyrene, Aquaresin. 2017

“Overstood.” Sanford Biggers. Sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, glitter, polystyrene, Aquaresin. 2017

There are a number of problems with the artwork and its statement. Biggers did not credit Associated Press photographer Ernest K. Bennet for the photo of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and his militant comrades; who were not all Panthers.

It can be argued that not crediting Bennet is plagiarism, as with Biggers’ Seigaiha flags. Some will say fair use laws allow for such artistic practice, but I contend it simply shows Biggers has no talent or aptitude for drawing.

You might think an artist is expected to show a genius for the delineation of form by way of line, shading, and tone, but the art establishment of today insists drawing is passé, unless talking about meaningless scrawls and scratches.

The real headache regarding Overstood is its misrepresentation of the Black Panther Party and the artist’s cultural nationalist political baggage. Which brings me to the “hand carved power objects” Biggers has his “Panthers” springing from.

Plainly speaking the Panthers were not practitioners of religion, African or otherwise; they were adherents of Marxian dialectical materialism, not African spiritualism. Yet Biggers shows them, not only as creations of African spirits who have conjured them up, but as supernatural beings in some ethereal African afterworld. Clearly, Biggers is far-removed from the thoughts of Panther leader Huey P. Newton, and in alignment with the black supremacist cultural nationalism of Maulana Karenga. To understand the quandary lets review some historic facts.

Photo of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (right center) with fellow militants in Oakland, California. Photographer Ernest K. Bennett took the photo on Nov. 21, 1968. Sanford Biggers used Bennett’s uncredited photo to create “Overstood.”

Photo of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (right center) with fellow militants in Oakland, California. Photographer Ernest K. Bennett took the photo on Nov. 21, 1968. Sanford Biggers used Bennett’s uncredited photo to create “Overstood.”

The Black Panther Party (BPP) embraced revolutionary socialism and defined itself as the “vanguard of the revolution.” It held political education classes where party members were required to read and understand works like: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, The Last Stage of Imperialism and Class Struggle in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin FrazierThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The Panthers expressed solidarity with socialist Algeria, and the communist regimes of China, Cuba, North Vietnam, and North Korea. The BPP was not a black supremacist organization, it sought working relationships with all races. In 1968 its Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, ran for president on the California Peace and Freedom Party.

“Eldridge Cleaver For President.” Presidential campaign poster for Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. He ran for President on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket in 1968. Artist unknown.

“Eldridge Cleaver For President.” Presidential campaign poster for Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. He ran for President on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket in 1968. Artist unknown.

The Panthers opposed the cultural nationalists of the US Organization, founded in 1965 by Ron Everett, who took the Swahili name of Maulana (master teacher) Karenga (keeper of the tradition). Karenga wanted no alliances with whites, insisting that a cultural return to Africa would restore black identity and bring deliverance to American blacks.

Followers wore African clothes, spoke Swahili, and gave themselves African names. In 1966 Karenga invented an African harvest festival he called Kwanzaa. His objective was to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

Karenga elaborated, “You must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction.” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris claims to celebrate Kwanzaa.

The leadership of the Black Panther Party, including Bobby Seale, referred to Karenga’s politics as “pork chop nationalism.” In a 1968 interview with The Movement publication of the Students for a Democratic Society, Newton described Karenga’s cultural nationalism as “reactionary” and “the wrong political perspective.” At the UCLA campus on Jan. 17, 1969, members of Karenga’s US shot and killed Black Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, because they ridiculed Maulana Karenga. Did the elders witness, stand over and “overstand” that act of political assassination?

One last comment on Biggers plagiarizing Bennet’s Nov. 21, 1968 photo. On that date Eldridge Cleaver delivered a speech at San Francisco’s California Hall. It was sponsored by his defense committee. It is somewhat likely Bobby Seale and his comrades were photographed at that event. Cleaver had been charged with attempted murder for an April 1968 shoot out with Oakland police where Panther Bobby Hutton was killed and two officers wounded. Sometime after his address Cleaver jumped bail to avoid imprisonment. He fled to Cuba, then to socialist Algeria, where the National Liberation Front had just won independence from France in 1962.

Some have implied Seale and fellow militants were photographed at the Third World Liberation Front student strike at San Francisco State College (Nov. 1968 to March 1969). Not likely, since Nov. 21st was not significant to the student action, despite two firebrands from the strike, Ben Stewart and George Murray being in the picture. Bennet’s photo is a conundrum. Cleaver’s speech and the student strike both happened in San Francisco, but the photo credit says it was taken in Oakland—across from the San Francisco Bay. There is no certainty regarding the event and location captured in the photo; it seems a detail lost to history. The only certitude is that Biggers concocted a narrative that he attached to a misappropriated historic photograph.

In conclusion, ever since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a porcelain urinal in 1917, artists have been subverting traditional sculpture. So, are the artists of today still yearning for the overthrow of classical sculpture? How is that even possible? What is left of traditional sculpture in the present day? How can the art of Sanford Biggers be considered “subversive” when it is embraced by galleries and museums, praised by art critics, and sanctioned by ruling class institutions?

Postmodern conceptual art, performance art, and installation art, rule the roost in present-day art institutions; that sphere supports Biggers. Traditional realist sculpture, painting and drawing is no longer spoken of in contemporary art magazines. It is shoved aside at art fairs and trendy galleries—one might find it cobwebbed in the basements of a few museums. It is not hyperbole to say realism has gone underground. It is time for a complete reversal of the situation.

As for the Rockefeller family and their namesake, the Rockefeller Center, there has been, shall we say, a rather prickly liaison with the art world over the years. I am certain Biggers does not know that during the Cold War of the early 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly worked with Nelson Rockefeller and other highfalutin members of the art world—including artists, to establish the dominance of American abstract art over the “Socialist Realism” of the Soviet Union. Yes, they even weaponized art. And today? Perhaps Biggers should do some reading on the topic.

So again the question, what is left of traditional art and sculpture? Not much, and regrettably artists like Sanford Biggers hope to fill the void. If toppling monuments to historic American figures and events subverts the mythos of the United States, then what mythology will supersede them? Mr. Biggers and his backers think they have the answer. Still I wonder. Instead of incessantly rubbing our noses in horrid things, why not create beauteous works of art, breathtaking works that uplift and unite people.

Would that be so difficult?

__________________

The Sanford Biggers exhibit at the Rockefeller Center, ran from May 5 to June 29, 2021.

FOOTNOTES:

1. George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov, Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University.

A Few Thoughts on Juneteenth

Now that Juneteenth has become the 12th legal public holiday in the United States, I have a few words regarding the jubilee commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., that began when Republican President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. I will start this short essay with a comment on the Juneteenth Commemorative Flag, which undoubtably you will see a lot of in the years to come.

Juneteenth flag designed in 1997 by Ben Haith

Juneteenth flag designed in 1997 by Ben Haith.

The Juneteenth flag was designed in 1997 by Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. Collaborators Verlene Hines, Azim, and Eliot Design, contributed to Mr. Haith’s vision of the flag, and the design was “fine tuned” by illustrator/artist Lisa Jeanne Graf.

Since Juneteenth began in Texas, the flag is evocative of the Lone Star State’s banner. According to Haith, the white star in the Juneteenth flag stands for Texas, but also for the freedom of blacks in all 50 states. The bursting outline around the star symbolizes a “nova,” or newly visible star—representing a new beginning for African-Americans in Galveston and across the US. The convergence of the flag’s blue and red fields into an arc indicates a new horizon of promise and opportunities for blacks. Haith says the colors of red, white, and blue represent the American flag, reminding everyone that the slaves and their descendants, were and are Americans, and that we must continue to live up to the American ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Some will think the Juneteenth flag a necessary symbol for an exceedingly important event in the nation’s life; I can appreciate that opinion while thinking the American flag already encapsulates those ideals. Others have rejected both flags, favoring instead the red, black, and green Pan-African flag of Jamaican-born black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Called “Black Moses” by followers, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, and envisioned Africa as a unified, black-separatist, one-party state to be governed by none-other than Garvey himself. I would look foolish waving the red, black, and green flag of Garveyism, so if you do not mind I will keep my American flag, and perhaps will acquire a Juneteenth Commemorative Flag as well.

As for Juneteenth’s origins, it all started with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. The US Civil War began in April of 1861 and would not end until May 1865. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Union Army won a strategic victory over the Confederate Army at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland; five days later Lincoln issued the proclamation. While it officially outlawed slavery in the Confederacy—those states that seceded from the United States, it left slavery untouched in states loyal to the Union. However, the proclamation shifted the reason for the Civil War from a battle to preserve the Union, to one aimed at abolishing slavery.

Union Army Major-General Gordon Granger. Photo by one of the earliest photographers in US history, Mathew Brady. Photo taken during the Civil War, date unknown.

Union Army Major-General Gordon Granger. Photograph by one of the earliest photographers in US history, Mathew Brady. Photo taken during the Civil War, date unknown.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army Major-General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2,000 Union soldiers, rode into Galveston, Texas.

They had orders to enforce the freeing of all slaves, nullify laws imposed by Confederate lawmakers, and see to a peaceful transition of power. Slaveholders in remote Texas had defied Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, keeping 250,000 slaves in bondage.

Granger had the duty of reading General Order No. 3 throughout Galveston; it announced the Emancipation Proclamation and stated categorically that “all slaves are free” and as for masters and slaves, “the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Union soldiers backed-up General Order No. 3 with bayoneted rifles.

For African-American slaves in Galveston on June 19, 1865, Juneteenth was Emancipation Day. Singing and shouts of Hallelujah! came from former slaves on the streets of the city that day.

The next day General Order No. 3 was published in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News. It was also reported on and reproduced by the New York Times on July 7, 1865. Recently the NYT published an archived copy of that report; everyone should read the order in its entirety. A year later mass organized celebrations began in Galveston and other cities in Texas. Over the years it became a grass roots celebration in black communities, particularly in southern states.

It is a sad state of affairs that many Americans have no idea what Juneteenth represents, or that its importance will be explained to them by corrupt corporate news media and demagogic politicians. It has been said that Juneteenth is the “longest-running African-American holiday.” I would correct that only by saying it is one of America’s longstanding celebrations, for what real American would not applaud the expansion of liberty? I view Juneteenth as a people’s holiday, hard won by the sacrifice of millions who struggled for liberty.

It must be stated that prior to the Republican government liberating the slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery on January 31, 1865. The vote was 68% for the amendment, and 32% opposed. Every Republican voted to pass the 13th Amendment. As for the Democrats, 50 voted nay, 14 yea, and 8 abstained. This fact should never be forgotten.

In celebrating Juneteenth as a national federal holiday, we should lionize those who made it possible. Abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. Black and white, these heroes embraced the liberatory struggle against human bondage, and their fearlessness helped to shape America.

“Come and Join Us Brothers.” January 1, 1865. Artist unknown. In Philadelphia the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments issued this recruitment poster. Black recruits would be assigned to the Union army’s “United States Colored Troops” (USCT) regiments, which had the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants).

“Come and Join Us Brothers.” January 1, 1865. Artist unknown. In Philadelphia the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments issued this recruitment poster. Black recruits would be assigned to the Union army’s “United States Colored Troops” (USCT) regiments, which had the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants).

Never forget the gallantry of the Union soldiers, black and white, that forever changed the course of our nation. I place great emphasis on the black soldiers who joined the Union army to give their all in the fight against slavery. I have to mention Corporal John Payne of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Payne wrote in 1862: “I am not willing to fight for this Government for money alone. Give me my rights, the rights that this Government owes me, the same rights that the white man has. I would be willing to fight three years for this Government without one cent of the mighty dollar. Then I would have something to fight for. Liberty is what I am struggling for; and what pulse does not beat high at the very mention of the name?” I praise the memory of Corp. John Payne, and hope to meet such men in our present.

Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Smith was promoted to Color Sergeant before his discharge in 1865. He is shown here in his Union army uniform with Sergeant stripes. Source: Shiloh National Military Park.

Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Smith was promoted to Color Sergeant before his discharge in 1865. He is shown here in his Union army uniform with Sergeant stripes. Source: Shiloh National Military Park.

As for heroics, Andrew Jackson Smith certainly qualifies. At nineteen-years-old he escaped slavery in Kentucky and eventually fell in with the Union’s 41st Illinois Infantry as a laborer.

Smith became the servant of Major John Warner; they agreed that in the event the Major was killed in battle, Smith would deliver his belongings to the Major’s family. Major Warner and the 41st took part in the April 5, 1862 Battle of Shiloh, and Smith found himself in the thick of the bloodiest battle yet fought in the war.

Confederates twice shot the Major’s mount from under him, and each time Smith provided the Major with another horse. Smith was slammed in the temple by a fragment of a “minnie ball” fired from a black powder rifle-musket. The fragment travelled just under his skin and stopped in the middle of Smith’s forehead.

Smith survived Shiloh, but when he heard that President Lincoln called on black troops to fight for their freedom, he joined the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry and became part of the color-bearer unit carrying the US flag and regiment insignia into battle. He fought the Confederates in multiple raids along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.

Corporal Smith fought the Confederates at the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina, where he showed great bravery. It was the third battle of Major General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” though Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch commanded the 54th Massachusetts and 55th Massachusetts black regiments in this particular battle.

During the fight the 55th’s Color Sergeant was obliterated by an artillery shell. Smith saved the Regimental Colors and continued the bloody attack, even as heavy grape shot and canister shells rained down on the Union soldiers from Confederate artillery. Half of the 55th’s officers and a third of the enlisted men were killed or wounded, but Smith continued to expose himself to enemy fire, never losing the colors to the enemy.

Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith lived to see the Confederate States of America vanquished and slavery abolished. After the war he lived in peace in Kentucky, where he died March 4, 1932 at the age of 88. The Medal of Honor was awarded Corporal Smith posthumously in 2001 for distinguished action and bravery at Honey Hill. It is appropriate for Smith to be remembered on Juneteenth.

A band celebrates Juneteenth Emancipation Day, June 19, 1900,Texas, USA. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

A band celebrates Juneteenth Emancipation Day, June 19, 1900, Houston, Texas. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

Then there are the everyday black people, who over many decades observed Juneteenth with songs, prayers, food, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. They did so to keep the spirit alive, to remember those who sacrificed so much for freedom. They didn’t do it because Nike, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Disney, and a bunch of opportunist politicians told them it was the correct thing to do. They did it for all the right reasons. Malcolm X once said, “History is a people’s memory, and without memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.” What he said conforms with the truth. Juneteenth is a people’s memory. Let us keep it that way.

I will close this essay with a tribute to those “everyday people” who kept Juneteenth alive. A few photographs from the Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebrations held in Houston, Texas in the early 1900s. It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is going to come.

Juneteenth float decorated with white ribbons and flowers. Fixed to the float is a sign reading, “The Spirit of Charity Art Club.” 1906. Prominent families, organizations, and institutions would decorate buggies and wagons to parade them in the community before gathering in Emancipation Park for a celebration. Source: Houston Public Library.

1906 Juneteenth float decorated with white ribbons and flowers. Fixed to the float is a sign reading, “The Spirit of Charity Art Club.” Prominent families, organizations, and institutions would decorate buggies and wagons to parade them in the community before gathering in Emancipation Park for a celebration. Source: Houston Public Library.

Two women sitting in a buggy decorated with flowers at the annual Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration in Houston, Texas, 1906. Left to right: Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

Two women sitting in a buggy decorated with flowers at the annual Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration in Houston, Texas, 1906. Left to right: Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates. Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives.

That’s The Way The Kamala Cookie Crumbles

This blog is dedicated to my views on art and culture, but on this rare occasion I must include the culinary arts. On her June 6, 2021 night flight to Guatemala on Air Force Two, Vice President Kamala Harris wanted to give a sweet treat to members of the truehearted media onboard, you know, for their loyal service to “the big guy.” An unnamed pâtissier provided the perfect baked goodie—the pastry chef conjured up a gourmet cookie bearing the likeness of the Veep herself. Of course, it is based upon the official Vice Presidential portrait photo.

“Kamala Cookie.” Photo of cellophane wrapped cookie passed out by VP Harris on AF2. The image is evocative of René Magritte's “vache” paintings. Don’t ask me, look it up on DuckDuckGo. Photo credit: @cmsub

“Kamala Cookie.” Photo of cellophane wrapped cookie passed out by VP Harris on AF2. The image is evocative of René Magritte's “vache” paintings. Don’t ask me, look it up on DuckDuckGo. Photo credit: @cmsub

This was not your typical small, flat, round, factory-made, lowly cookie you buy in a proletarian convenience store. This cookie was regal, a patrician cookie, a culinary masterwork to haunt politicos for eternity; though it may crumble under the slightest pressure. The cookie’s icing undoubtably contains synthetic food dyes Blue 1, Red 3, and BS 2020, which may negatively impact behavior in children, so I do hope none of the journalists give their cookies to their kids. The journos however are safe, as they have grown tolerant of BS 2020.

The oversweet Kamala confection—I am speaking of the cookie, is shaped like an emblem. While no one knows what it is emblematic of, the multitudes who love sugarcoated things will appreciate this badge-like cookie. In fact, it might be the only sacchariferous badge they will not defund. An average “foodie” may think the sugary glaze distracts from the visage of a faceless VP, however any connoisseur of oligarchical collectivism understands that sometimes “facelessness is usefulness” when it comes to the oblivion of politics—no matter how saccharine the taste.

Reports say a disgruntled member of the AF2 wicked kitchen staff smuggled a Kamala cookie off the plane. It was disguised as a double decker cheeseburger. Since the Veep embraces the Green New Deal objective of reducing meat consumption, it was easy to offload the “burger” and secret the camouflaged cookie to the last independent journalist in America, who by the way has been deplatformed. Fellow gourmets, do not worry, it will all be soon forgotten. Bon appétit!