Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Colossal Radcliffe Bailey Exhibit At Atlanta High Museum

I finally found one word to describe Memory as Medicine, the Radcliffe Bailey exhibition I saw last Saturday – colossal. More than mere paint on canvas, the huge multimedia selections on display at the High Museum in Atlanta, taken in the aggregate, are a colossus, a worthy monument to the trials and tribulations that have shaped the lives of Africans brought to America. It wasn’t until Sunday at our Labor Day gathering that I found out Bailey’s show was the first solo exhibit by an African American artist.

The sheer scale of many of the pieces, including the diorama Uprootedthat stretched on for twenty feet, would be overwhelming if it weren’t for the artist’s careful manipulation of the tonal variations between the items and his use of distinct layers. The most arresting piece in the whole show was Windward Coast, a massive installation that consisted of a black plaster cast of the head of an African American male emerging from beneath the thousands upon thousands of wooden piano keys Bailey had arranged to resemble the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

For some artists, the overwhelmingly dire content of slavery evoked in Bailey’s themes of passage from Africa to America, and the universal passage he evokes in boats and the cosmos from the world of the living to the world of the infinite, might burden their work. But Bailey’s perspective is airborne, humanistic, full of hope. He takes the South’s legacy of slavery (the proverbial elephant in the room) and, instead of a bottomless gulf of pain, finds healing and wisdom.

Radcliffe Bailey draws from dark history to push his own art forward 

As I marveled at the intricacies of one of the smaller works by Bailey depicting the journey of a slave ship, a middle aged white man and his young son were standing in front of me. It was as interesting to watch the interaction between father and son as it was to look at the work itself. The little boy’s reaction to the slave ship was literal, prompting him to ask questions about why the people in the picture were on the ship. The father’s answers were deliberate and direct explanations about the indignities of the slave trade, the kind of truth telling about America’s past that make it imperative for more top tier museums across the country to sponsor shows by African American artists like Radcliffe Bailey.      

With the May 1st grand opening to the public of its new building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, the Whitney Museum launches a new era not only in the New York City art scene, but also, possibly, in the very world of museums. Thanks to a Renzo Piano-designed new building built, as Whitney Director Adam D. Weinberg put it, “from the inside out” to serve the interests of the art and the patrons first, the new Whitney and its classic collection of American art stretching back to 1900 has drawn excited raves and exasperated rants from critics. Their inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, gathers together long-loved classic works with rarely seen newcomers to create a paradox of old and new to mirror the many paradoxes of the American history the art embodies and critiques by turns. This shock of the new (and old) is the must-see art event of the year.
Among the many things about America that the American Civil War changed was its art. Painting and sculpture simply couldn’t be the same. In these sesquicentennial years, every aspect of […]
For the third year running, here’s a very personal, very subjective, “I can’t read everything, so I probably left out something, so mention it in the comments, OK?” list of […]

Up Next