Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 7

 

Voyager, 1992, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Plunge, 1992, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Postmodernists tell us that “The logics of domination structure the world.”1 Kerry James Marshall makes art that addresses the domination that was exerted by enslaving Africans to build the New World. Voyager depicts the actual event of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to the Americas. Plunge also shows the Atlantic Ocean, but the “Private” sign on the gate leaves us uncertain about how the descendants of the enslaved have fared in succeeding years. Who is included? Who is excluded? are questions that acknowledge that social isolation, or segregation, becomes a two way street. He has said, “As a black person I’m used to going places in which I might be the only black person that shows up there. This experience has an effect on the way you see yourself in the world and what it means to be black in the world. You don’t see black people winning Nobel prizes for physics or economics, or any of the industries or institutions that shape the way the world operates. When you find yourself, your culture and the history is of having been subjugated, enslaved and colonized, you got to fix that.”2

See Alice Jump, 2011, Henry Taylor (b. 1958), courtesy of Blum and Poe

Henry Taylor presents the first African American woman to win Olympic gold in See Alice Jump, based on a photograph of Alice Coachman. This painting requires a bit more explanation as to its significance. Ms. Coachman was proud to have “opened the gate” for African American women in the 1948 Olympics. In years since, African American women have now become the majority of the US Women’s Olympic track and field team. “If I had gone to the games and failed,” she said, “there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps.” Her hero’s welcome in Albany, Georgia after the 1948 Games was segregated. Taylor’s painting reminds us of the distance our culture has traveled since that time.3

  1. Andrea Smith, “The Problem with Privilege,” posted August 14, 2013, accessed October 27, 2015, andrea366.wordpress.com. Interestingly, in checking this quote, I learned that Dr. Smith has become personally embroiled in the politics of power and identity she studies.
  2. Hannah Duguid, “Kerry James Marshall, interview: Putting black artists into the textbook,” Independent, October 20, 2014, accessed December 1, 2015, www.independent.co.uk/news/people/kerry-james-marshall-interview-putting-black-artists-into-the-textbooks-9801055.html
  3. Alan Greenblatt, “Why an African-American Sports Pioneer Remains Obscure,” NPR.org, accessed October 27, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/07/19/332665921/why-an-african-american-sports-pioneer-remains-obscure.