Category: African American

Picturing the Obamas and Kehinde Wiley

I can’t recall such an unending fuss about a presidential portrait. The hoopla at the 2018 unveiling of the portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was fairly understandable, but then came the media blitz.

Every magazine and paper in the US celebrated the portraits. Likewise “The Obama Portraits Tour” visited eight US art museums from June 2021 to October 2022. That tour was accompanied by The Obama Portraits book. Now we have the Picturing the Obamas documentary. Enough already.

The Smithsonian Channel™ premiered the Picturing the Obamas documentary on Sept. 10, 2022. It focused on the portraits of former President Obama and the First Lady that hang in the National Portrait Gallery, the artists who painted them—Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (respectively), and the public’s reaction to the portraits. When announcing the broadcast, the Smithsonian noted that the paintings “disrupt traditional presidential portraiture.”

“Barack Obama.” Kehinde Wiley. Oil on canvas, 2018.

While I agree with the distinguished institution’s assertion that the paintings are disruptive, my ideas as to why are different from the Smithsonian’s. Since the portraits were officially unveiled in 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery I have wanted to comment on them, now I’ll do just that. My essay focuses on Mr Wiley and not Ms Sherald, sorry, but there’s only so much love to go around. I will only say that Sherald’s painting of Michelle bore little resemblance to the sitter.

It was only a few years ago that the acolytes of postmodern art were insisting “painting is dead.” The postmodernist disciples proselytized that authenticity, cognition, and intellection could not be found in painting, but only realized in conceptual art, performance art, installation art, video art, land art, identity art, and the other sects of the postmodern congregation.

Kitsch was King and suddenly High art found itself a pauper. Artistic skill was said to be passé, beauty was a social construct, ironic and ugly works were cherished, and appropriation art—or what the rationally minded called plagiarism, was meet with acclaim. Into this morass strode Wiley, and he found himself instantly celebrated.

The director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Kim Sajet (pronounced Say-et), wrote an obsequious article for the February 2019 edition of The Atlantic titled The Obama Portraits Have Had a Pilgrimage Effect. She asserted that the flocks of devotees coming to see the Obama portraits at the museum comprise “a form of secular pilgrimage.” Keep in mind that Ms. Sajet considered this a positive.

Sajet actually equated the Obama “pilgrimage” to the Hajj, the annual journey to Saudi Arabia’s city of Mecca that every good Muslim must do at least once in their life. She claimed the museum had been transformed into “a communal gathering place,” and compared those traveling to see the Obama paintings with Elvis Presley fans traveling to Graceland. Now there’s a vision… a velvet painting of “Great Leader” Obama Presley.

Ms. Sajet is the first woman to serve as the director of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, America’s repository of artworks focusing on famous American politicians, performers, scientists, artists, and other American notables. Her bio on the National Portrait Gallery website states that since she was “born in Nigeria, raised in Australia, and a citizen of the Netherlands,” she “brings a global perspective to the position.” It comes as no surprise that her bio says her interests include “identity politics.”

I have loved and respected a number of Black American artists in my life but Kehinde Wiley is not one of them. I view him as an unmitigated fraud. I have multiple reasons for thinking him a charlatan, but my primary critique is that “assistants” help paint his works.

New York Magazine let the cat out of the bag in its April 20, 2012 article, Kehinde Wiley’s Global Reach. The piece was ingratiating towards Wiley but writer Christopher Beam did expose one embarrassing detail. Beam visited Wiley’s Beijing, China studio, where the artist admitted that he moved there in 2006 to set up his first “global production outpost” where low-wage Chinese “helpers” painted his works. An article excerpt reads:

“There’s nothing new about artists using assistants—everyone from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons has employed teams of helpers, with varying degrees of irony and pride—but Wiley gets uncomfortable discussing the subject. ‘I’m sensitive to it,’ he says. When I first arrived at his Beijing studio, the assistants had left, and he made me delete the iPhone snapshots I’d taken of the empty space.

It’s not that he wants people to believe every brushstroke is his, he says. That they aren’t is public knowledge. It’s just a question of boundaries. ‘I don’t want you to know every aspect of where my hand starts and ends, or how many layers go underneath the skin, or how I got that glow to happen,’ he says. ‘It’s the secret sauce! Get out of my kitchen!’”

Wiley’s “secret sauce” is the exploitation of Chinese labor. The Chinese Communist Party controls all art in China (just ask Ai Weiwei). The CCP knows full well that Wiley is employing Chinese artists, it could not be otherwise as the communists maintain an iron grip on all economic activity, not to mention they run one the most advanced surveillance states in the world today. Wiley’s kitchen euphemism is better replaced with, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Beam’s article did contain a rather large misstatement. He said of Wiley using helpers to produce his paintings, “It’s not that he wants people to believe every brushstroke is his, that they aren’t is public knowledge.” That statement is just not true.

Aside from Beam’s article in New York Magazine, which radio stations, television broadcasts, newspapers, or magazines have reported that Kehinde Wiley uses assistants to paint his canvases? Has the Smithsonian mentioned this fact? Do the crowds fawning over Wiley’s portrait of Obama know this? Does Barack know?! People erroneously believe that Wily paints every brushstroke.

Speaking as an artist, I would be ashamed to pay others to paint my canvases. Every brushstroke is mine. When the Smithsonian approvingly proclaims that Wiley’s Obama portrait is meant to “disrupt traditional presidential portraiture,” that is why you hear cynical laughter coming from my art studio.

It was also guff for Beam to say, “there’s nothing new about artists using assistants—everyone from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons has employed teams of helpers.” Michelangelo needed the help of assistants to paint his murals at the Sistine Chapel because it was a gargantuan task beyond the abilities of one man. Michelangelo’s hand and vision made those murals and no one ever doubted the fact. Whereas Jeff Koons creates nothing, his projects are entirely fashioned by paid assistants, and his only skill is self-promotion. It was rubbish to compare Michelangelo to Koons.

Mr. Beam stated in his article: “Producing work in China cuts costs, but not as much as it used to, Wiley says. These days in Beijing he employs anywhere from four to ten workers, depending on the urgency.” Beam also revealed that Wiley runs “several global production outposts” but only Beijing, Dakar, and New York City were named. Where are the other “global production outposts” where low-wage drones create Kehinde Wiley’s “original” paintings?

The soft-spoken Kehinde Wiley has the same outlook as Sanford Biggers, another Black American artist consumed by identity politics. Both have given themselves the mission of demolishing the “White supremacist” art world and work to interrupt and mitigate the “Whiteness” of Western art.

As a matter of fact on May 11, 2021 the Smithsonian Magazine wrote an article favorable to Biggers titled: “This Monumental ‘Oracle’ Statue in NYC Subverts Traditional Sculpture,” with a subhead insisting the Biggers’ installation “challenges the tropes of classical artwork.” Such “challenges” are a prerequisite for entrée into elite art circles these days. The article was so full of hypocrisy, contradictions, and inaccuracies that I was compelled to write a takedown of Biggers titled, Sanford Biggers Is Not An Oracle.

Wiley hopes to extirpate the sins of racism and sexism that he sees in Western art by painting “subversive” parodies of classical Western works and themes. Reimagining Old Master paintings is Wiley’s schtick. I loath the postmodern concept of reimagining everything in the Western world. The Old Masters don’t need to be reimagined, they just need to be appreciated for what they were.

Wiley’s conundrum is that his paintings are produced à la Photoshop and sweatshop, and his “subversion” reeks of racialism. One only needs to examine his horrid Judith and Holofernes paintings to see that.

I’m serious when I say Wiley’s paintings are the result of Photoshop. As a wave of criticism began over his Obama portrait, an anonymous person distributed on the internet a diagram examining the painting. With a series of colorful boxes outlining specific areas of the background, the graphic revealed that the foliage behind Obama was repeated again and again. I don’t mean a loose, casual repetition but an exacting, precise duplication of every leaf in a bunch—reduplicated over and over.

Diagram of Wiley’s Obama portrait shows background areas repeated over and over. Anonymous meme.

Anyone familiar with the Adobe Photoshop graphics application knows of its “rubber stamp” tool, which can fully replicate imagery with the click of a mouse, no drawing skills required. At first glance one doesn’t notice the repetitive duplication in Wiley’s painting, but once you see it you’ll always see it. It’s obvious that a “study” done in Photoshop was projected onto canvas and then traced in pencil. I’m presuming the “help” had the unenviable task of painting in all those blasted leaves.

Admirers of Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait always point to the background flower motif as holding profound significance. The purple African lily embodies his fathers’s Kenyan bloodline; the white jasmine personifies his Hawaiian birthplace, and the multicolored chrysanthemum symbolizes Chicago, where he became a State senator. How fitting those flowers were rubber stamped into existence by Photoshop.

Aside from the photoshopped flowers there is another oddity in Kehinde Wiley’s painting. Artists interested in realism must acquire and master basic drawing techniques that create the illusion of space, perspective, and depth on a flat surface; apparently Wiley missed those lessons.

In Wiley’s portrait Obama sits on a chair with its four legs disappearing into the foliage, sprigs of which overlap the backrest and seat. The chair has weight and one imagines its legs firmly planted on the ground, except… Obama’s feet are floating, there is no ground beneath them, they touch nothing. The foliage is suddenly a flat backdrop with no relationship to the foreground. This isn’t another one of Wiley’s “subversive” deconstructions, it’s not any kind of artistic statement—it’s simply his ineptitude as an artist.

This photoshopping of a presidential portrait meant to hang in the Smithsonian’s grand National Portrait Gallery, this imbecilic ignoring of perspective, indicates how far the once glorious art of painting has fallen. But it also points to the moribund state of art criticism and the news media, professions you might think would have an interest in investigating such an affront. “Disrupt traditional presidential portraiture” indeed.

Ben Davis, art critic for Artnet News, offered a very mild critique of Wiley’s Obama portrait in a Feb. 2018 article titled Here’s the Bad News About Kehinde Wiley’s Presidential Portrait of Barack Obama. In his essay Mr Davis heaped praise upon Obama and Wiley, and aimed jabs at then President Trump.

Davis analyzed the mythos presented in the official oil portraits made of Thomas Jefferson (painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1805), George Washington (Gilbert Stuart, 1796), and George W. Bush (Robert Anderson 2008). What Davis wrote about John Singer Sargent’s official 1903 White House portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt I found most revealing:

“In my opinion, this is the most stylish of all presidential portraits. Its savvy artistic myth-making, however, only half distracts me from the small historical fact that Teddy Roosevelt was a ruthless imperialist.”

Davis didn’t call Obama “a ruthless imperialist” despite the 44th President sending 30,000 US combat troops to Afghanistan in 2009. In 2011 Obama launched a war against Libya without a Congressional declaration of war; he didn’t even call it war, he called it “kinetic military action.” The war obliterated Libya, its economy, government, army, and its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Al-Qaeda raised its flag over Benghazi, ISIS set up operations in the country, and slave markets began selling 1000s of Africans into slavery. Today Libya is still ungovernable… but I digress.

“Theodore Roosevelt.” John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas, 1903.

Whatever one might think of the “ruthless imperialist” Teddy Roosevelt, he did offer the following words of wisdom: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” Those on the Obama pilgrimage should take head of Teddy’s pronouncement, which also applies to the current resident in the White House.

At the end of his article Davis finally got to the Bad News about Obama, while still pummeling Trump: “Obama not only presided over the rise of drone warfare, but the extrajudicial killing of US citizens and the limitless extension of the NSA’s digital surveillance program—all precedents he passed on to his maniacal successor. When that became a crisis after the Snowden leaks, Obama enacted a shock-and-awe crackdown on whistleblowers, invoking the Espionage Act more than all previous administrations combined.”

Art critic Ben Davis barely touched upon Obama’s surveillance program run by the National Security Agency. Without warrants the NSA vacuumed up the emails and phone calls of every American with a phone or computer. But Obama’s NSA didn’t just spy on US citizens, it was also spying on French and German citizens. The NSA spied on 35 world leaders, and Obama personally approved spying on German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Obama Department of Justice spied on more than 100 staffers of the Associated Press, eavesdropping on their cell, office, and home lines. Imagine if Trump had spied on the AP. Obama even tapped the AP line at the US House of Representatives. But the secretive, cloak-and-dagger activities of Mr. Hope and Change did not go unnoticed by the public.

“Super-sleuth Barack gazing at you through binoculars.” Anonymous.

Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait was transformed into dozens of uproarious and politically pointed memes. My favorite was super-sleuth Barack gazing at you through binoculars while partially hidden in the foliage of African lilies, white jasmine, and chrysanthemums.

Davis closed his article with this: “Somewhere, deep down, on the level of subtext and unintended meanings, this strange, strange political portrait ends up being about how the man must be abstracted from the nitty-gritty of his legacy to become the symbol that his followers desire him to be.” So we end as we began, with public desires and how they are manufactured and manipulated.

There’s no space between Duchamp’s The Fountain (a urinal exhibited in 1917), and Tracey Emin’s 1998 My Bed (an unmade bed covered with dirty clothes, cigarette butts, empty alcohol bottles, condoms, and the detritus of Emin’s life). In the postmodern way Emin conjured up a vague semblance of life, a simulacrum.

But Kehinde Wiley himself has become the simulacrum, a representation of an artist whose sole mission is redefining Western canon by way of plagiarism and identity art.

Wiley’s Obama is pure kitsch. I have no idea if low-wage Chinese workers labored on the painting, that’s Wiley’s “secret sauce.” But I’ll take John Singer Sargent’s Teddy Roosevelt portrait any old day.

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.


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.

“It feels as if art is failing us”

50 years ago on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York. This short essay is a reflection on Black History Month and how the explosive social events of the 1960s helped to shape my life and viewpoint as an artist. By extension, it is also a rumination on how artists must react to the issues of race and class facing America today.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

In the wake of four Los Angeles Police Department officers being acquitted for mercilessly beating, clubbing and kicking Rodney King after a high-speed car chase, I created the drawing No Justice, No Peace in the immediate aftermath of the riots that engulfed Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. One of the three young protesters I depicted in my drawing holds a flyer emblazoned with a photo of Malcolm X. I published my drawing as an edition of 5,000 offset litho flyers that were distributed all across the city; the leaflets bore the stencil letter headline of… No Justice, No Peace. It would not be the first time that I created an artwork that examined race in America; I had been making such images since I was a rebellious high school student in 1968.

I was only six-years old in 1960 when I saw newspaper photos of white racist thugs beating up African-Americans who dared to sit at segregated lunch counters in the South. A year later at seven-years old I saw news photos of racist white mobs beating Freedom Riders and burning their buses in Alabama. As a nine-year old in 1963, I watched television broadcasts of African-Americans marching for their human rights on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, and was horrified to see them savagely assaulted by policemen, set upon by snarling police dogs, and attacked by cops using high-pressure water hoses for “crowd dispersal.”

There was so much more: the ’63 dynamite bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that took the lives of four little girls; the ’64 police kidnapping and KKK murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965; the Orangeburg massacre of Feb. ’68, where hundreds of black students protesting racial segregation in Orangeburg, South Carolina were fired upon by police with carbines and shotguns, killing three young men and wounding 28 (predating the 1970 Kent State killings). Then, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I remember all of those events and so much more, just as if it all happened yesterday.

It is remarkable to think that in the suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up as a teenager, I walked every Friday to a local newsstand, a hub in the community, and purchased the weekly edition of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the party’s self-published newspaper. It is also striking to consider that I submitted a political cartoon to the Panther publication, sometime around 1969 or 1970 (the date escapes me). I received a letter from the Panthers that they had published my cartoon! That cartoon would be my very first published artwork; but that is a story for another time.

But concurrent with my political baptism came an aesthetic, cultural awakening. My interest in the Black liberation movement also led me to discover a plethora of African-American artists; giants like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Charles White, Betye Saar and many others. I have learned from and been inspired by many art movements: the Mexican Muralists, the German Expressionists, the American Social Realists of the late 1930s, but I would not be the artist I am today had it not been for the Black Arts Movement.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I cut my teeth on the social struggles just described, and with my understanding of art and cultural work as a necessary component to social change, I began to make art that confronted war, racism, imperialism, police brutality – the exact same problems that continue to plague us today. As a young artist in the 60’s, these themes filled my sketchbooks.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

As a fourteen-year old in 1968, I created my first clumsy attempt at a linoleum cut.

The print was inspired by the “Free Huey” campaign the Black Panther Party was then waging on behalf of its jailed Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton. The drive to free the Panther leader became a cause célèbre in the U.S., especially for young Blacks fed up with racial oppression.

I remember making black and white copies of my linoleum print on a Xerox Machine, a new technology at the time, and posting the facsimiles in my neighborhood. It would be my first foray into hit and run public art.

In 1970 I created a small drawing of Angela Davis after she had been arrested on trumped-up charges of murder. While Davis was never a Panther, she was an ardent supporter. It should be remembered that on Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago, Illinois were murdered by the police in a raid on Hampton’s apartment… bringing the number of Panthers killed by the police up to that point to 28.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1969 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches.  Never before published.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1970 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches. Created when the artist was 16-years old. Never before published.

There were plenty of other non-Panther African-American activists that fell victim to state repression at the time, so the fear that Davis might join them was a realistic one. While I never published my ink and watercolor portrait of Davis, I was very much involved in the international “Free Angela” movement that demanded her freedom.

I am sharing these memories to make a point, that a humanist art that resists and scorns injustice must come from real world experience. Such art grows out of an understanding of history and a great love for common people; more importantly, it springs from communities of people yearning and struggling for a better life. Because of my deep involvement with the civil and human rights movement of African-Americans, I cannot view art in any other way.

The debate regarding the social role of art in America remains as burning a question as it ever was. The protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown; the heinous strangulation death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department and the crushing pathos of the attendant “I Can’t Breathe!” rallying cry; the mass demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, all give the lie to the nonsense about a “post-racial” society having been ushered in by President Obama.

But where is the art that gives voice to these concerns? Why the full-blown torpor and inattention from the artistic community? It has much to do with the postmodern art quackery that prefers kitsch, detachment, irony, and simulacrum to hard facts and universal truths. Figurative realism and meaningful narrative, let alone heartfelt humanistic concerns, have been considered passé by art world gatekeepers for decades. Combine that toxic mix with art star celebrity worship and the near total commodification of art, and the reasons for art world apathy and unmindfulness becomes crystal clear. It should be recalled that figurative social realism was a vibrant, if not dominant school of art in the U.S. for much of the 20th century, until it was buried by abstract art in the post-WWII period. Still, there are glimmers of hope.

On Nov. 27, 2014, the chief film critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott, wrote an essay that broached the question, Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times? He stated emphatically that “we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.” Scott pointed out that in decades past, “all the news you need about class divisions” could be found in painting, theater, movies, and literature. Here he explicitly wrote that he was “waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad – something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times.” Mr. Scott will be waiting for a long time… all we get is 50 Shades of Grey, Justin Bieber, and some ludicrous balloon dogs from the vacuous Jeff Koons. While Scott offered no answers to the crisis in art, he did ask some of the right questions. His disquiet regarding how things stand in the arts are a starting point for serious discussions on the future of art.

One thing is certain, now is the time for artists the caliber of Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Catlett to appear on the scene. It is also undeniable that the “culture industry” of 21st century America, so invested in spectacle and distraction, will not present critical artists to the public at large. But what can also be stated with certitude is that such artists will come from the people.