“Memory as Medicine” evokes haunting journey to Middle Passage
Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 06:04
On Wednesday, March 28 at Collins Cinema, Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey reveal some of the personal dimensions behind his exhibit “Memory as Medicine,” which is currently on display at the Davis Museum until May 6.
The exhibit is Bailey’s first artistic appearance in the Northeast and is a collaboration between the Davis Museum and High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Spanning three floors, “Memory as Medicine” features paintings, as well as with floor and wall sculptures. The Davis Museum has also acquired a piece entitled “Echo” to join the permanent collection.
Blood, Blues and Water are the three main themes throughout the exhibit. To put simply, “Blood” refers to ancestry, in particular to the carnage of African slaves who were transported to the Americas in the Middle Passage, “Blues” refers to jazz music and “Water” alludes to the Atlantic Ocean that was part of the Middle Passage. Bailey not only combines mediums like sculpture and painting in his works, but physical and audio art as well.
“You never really disappear, you reappear,” Bailey said, responding to a question regarding the use of antique items in his art. Bailey noted that one of his favorite things to do is to go antique shopping for objects to use in his art, saying, “When you go through old objects, you can’t help but feel the presence of those who came before us.”
Bailey’s pieces often feature found objects, rather than elements fabricated in the studio. For example, many of his works, notably his largest, most striking piece “Windward Coast” (2009-2011), contain hundreds of piano keys.
Over the course of the lecture, Bailey revealed that his work was heavily influenced by his past. Bailey remarked, “Some people, when they’re sick, go to the medicine cabinet. For me, I go to memory. The idea of memory heals me and takes me to another place.”
Art serves as a cathartic experience, allowing Bailey to use the past as a respite from present problems. His family and childhood memories feature prominently in his work. Mint green paint is a tribute to his grandfather, while railroad tracks are an allusion to his father’s work as a railroad engineer. His mother’s duty as a school teacher is also featured in one work in which he represents a woman in a photograph weighed down by dozens of abstracted children, an allusion to the great responsibilities of her profession. Some works are inspired by going fishing with his father, while others are homages to his time playing baseball as a child. It is clear each piece seems to have a deeply personal significance for Bailey.
However, Bailey portrays his African American heritage in a broader sense in comparison. He cites his lineage to Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa and uses African mende masks as inspiration for his work. Furthermore, he also cites many prominent historical figures, from African American scientist George Washington Carver to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti to African American guitarist Jimi Hendrix. In addition, Bailey’s work alludes to significant historical events like the Civil Rights Movement, the Underground Railroad and the Middle Passage.
“I really believe in making something so personal, it becomes universal,” Bailey remarked during the discussion. Indeed, Bailey’s work can be understood by viewers of all ages and backgrounds. His work communicates broader sentiments, such as being at a metaphorical crossroad, diasporic communities or “finding peace within the chaos.”
In many ways, Bailey’s art is the link between the memories of past generations and future generations. “Memory as Medicine,” an exhibit that is simultaneously personal and yet broadly relatable, evokes profound emotion in its viewers. The work transcends races, generations and time, encouraging Wellesley students to bring their own narratives and backgrounds to art. Furthermore, it encourages us as educated young women to use our different perspectives to think critically about how art that affects us all.
“Memory as Medicine” is on display at the Davis until May 6.