This blog entry is not about Southern photography, specifically (although, unless otherwise specified, the photographs shown here are by Raleigh-based photographer Art Howard) but the subject is so deeply embedded in the history and culture of the American South that I am taking the liberty to include it anyway.
Raleigh has a new Contemporary Art Museum (CAM Raleigh) that is now featuring a major installation of work by Raleigh-based sculptor Thomas Sayre.
Sayre's work is often religious, in the best sense.
That is, he has the uncanny ability to identify forms that evoke memory and promise, and to recreate them and then display them in ways that link the two.
Sayre's work thus holds out the possibility that our engagement with the work might hold redemptive promise in the present.
Sayre usually does monumental sculptures either of shining metal or of concrete formed in the earth (see the PBS documentary on him and his work called Earthcaster).
Sometimes, these sculptures are of elemental forms like spheres or cones or hives or gyres (see the image above, by Raleigh's Jimmy Williams, of Sayre's piece installed at the NC Museum of Art).
Lately, Sayre's work often involves the elemental forms of familiar and utilitarian structures like the piece shown above, drawn from the iconic profile of the Southern tobacco barn (photo above by Raleigh's Bill Russ).
But once in a while he does pieces for walls. This work is usually about history, and about finding redemption in pain and suffering and the sweat of labor.
This is the case for White Gold, the installation at CAM Raleigh, up now through January 22nd, 2017.
White Gold is about cotton, and takes over the large central gallery at CAM, with two enormous murals of cotton fields, three smaller pieces that evoke the patterns of light shining through the cracks in barns, and eighteen earth castings of tire treads, footprints, and other impressions in the earth of cotton fields.
Sayre's pieces contrast the basic forms and colors of the cotton field at harvest time.
One wall's mural gives us the long view -- the rows and rows of white balls arrayed symmetrically when the field is seen from afar -- while the other mural immerses us in the tangle of branches that those picking the cotton must move through to reach the white gold so central to the culture and history of the South.
The colors of this work are at the heart of its power -- the white of the cotton, the black of the shadows thrown by bright sunlight, and the deep red of the muddy earth.
I'm reminded, as I look at all this red, and its evocation of the blood and sweat and labor that cotton demands, of Joan Didion's claim that "In the South they are convinced that they are capable of having bloodied their land with history."
And so we believe, and so we have.
White Gold has already had broader impact.
It has inspired the contemporary composer D. J. Sparr (see image above) to create …to me from the earth… a new musical composition for soprano, strings, and percussion.
…to me from the earth… sets to music the poem Mi Historia, by David Dominguez.
Sparr's piece was performed several times this past weekend at CAM Raleigh, featuring featuring vocalist Aundi Marie Moore in collaboration with the North Carolina Symphony and New Music Raleigh.
The musicians started out surrounding the audience, then slowly moved through the crowd, immersing us in sound and the personal narrative of family and labor chronicled in Dominguez' poem, even as Sayre's installation surrounded and immersed us in the images of
Here are some of the words of Dominguez' poem:
My mother crawled through the furrows
and plucked cotton balls that filled
the burlap sack she dragged,
shoulder-slung, through dried-up bolls,
husks, weevils, dirt clods,
and dust that filled the air with thirst.
But when she grew tired,
she slept on her mother’s burlap,
stuffed thick as a mattress,
and Grandma dragged her over the land
where time was told by the setting sun. . . .
History cried out to me from the earth,
in the scream of starling flight,
and pounded at the hulls of seeds to be set free.
At CAM Raleigh, Sayre's installation is paired with another show, this one employing photography, German photographer Gesche Würfel's Oppressive Architecture: Photography and Memories of Nazism in Germany and Slavery in the American South (see image above).
Würfel also attends to the basic forms of structures with, as they say, a history, using photographs to compare and contrast the forms and images of slave quarters in the American South with the buildings that housed prisoners in Nazi Germany's death camps.
All in all, truly powerful work now up at CAM Raleigh, well worth your visit. Also well worth seeking out if it travels to a museum or exhibition space near you.