Thursday, August 14, 2008
Ms. Stovall's Canticles
…glimpses of the scared and chillin’ art of Suesan Stovall
by jeffery mcnary
New England is hardly known for an absence of culture or a failure to appreciate the arts. In fact, Cambridge, Massachusetts can legitimately be tagged as the epicenter, the cradle of the tension and brawls between the cultural melieus of tradition and modernity. Sparks fly from these collisions and engagements on a daily, if not hourly schedule.
The work of Suesan Stovall, recently on exhibit in the Neil and Angelica Rudenstine Gallery of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University is an example of such an encounter. For in this citadel, Ms. Stovall fronted and framed her song and stories, and in the house that Henry Louis “Skip” Gates built, her images, both stinging and sacred, float in the ether as if she’s held a backstage pass to the African American experience. They are neither burdened nor ponderous, yet insisting of place somewhere, talisman like, and in all American households.
The installation, titled, ‘Journey of My Soul, Come Along for the Ride’, is a sweeping recount of historical attitudes, and is consistent with Ms. Stovall’s interest in assemblage as a medium, and her passionate belief and life journey to discover and develop things not always rolled out as the obvious.
While studying theatre in London, the “complete artist”, an operative in both the visual and performance genres, wandered through markets filled with old wooden chests and box and text and daguerreotype. There is knowledge, and wisdom, and magic in such places. There are tales, and legend, and mythical things. And Suesan Stovall became awed and nudged to create from legacy tossed asides. This, she does with caresses and curses.
Altar, a multi-piece phenomena, at the entrance to the exhibit, strands the memory and imagination of both viewer and artist with materials used with delicacy and color scheme. While the introductory wall mounted work begins with an aged photograph of what appears to be a black woman outside of a log cabin with several children, all lined up according to size. An orange pinwheel design stands sun-like above and to their right. The centerpiece presents seven candles arching along the floor thinly shrouding bowls of beans, and burnished gold and red rose petals, and gain; oils and ointments line the space behind the makeshift offering like with statuettes, and small bottles labeled ‘jinx remover’ and other similar titles. Feathers, and an animal jaw-bone activate the piece, along with flowers and more small bottles. The final section presents a cerulean blue background with a silver metallic angel figure with lettering inviting the viewer to knock on “heaven’s door.”
Ms. Stovall says the work is, “…an homage to the Great Spirit, the ancestors and the creative forces in the universe. The objects in and around it, some coming all the way from Africa, are offerings to the powers that be. Offerings in request of divine protection, guidance, and prayers for abundant life. Not bound by the confines of religion, societal rules and dogma. Just a place to take in some magic and enjoy the feeling.”
Both Coon Song and Nigger Blues, teachable moments, engage in a visual dialogue. Ms. Stoval refers to the pieces as, “explorations of minstrelsy.” There is no amnesia here. No lessons layered in abstract. Both present a close-up reminders of violation. Pulsing blacks and reds weep from Coon Song, and the beige and tans of Nigger Blues interlock lynching and Uncle Remus on a background of sky blue. Here the artist refuses to take an easy way out. Being of mixed race, Suesan Stovall was, “both deeply disturbed and fascinated by the popularity of an art form that so blatantly degraded African American people”, she said. “I also found it disturbing that white people in black face singing “darky songs” was accepted by both black and white people as a form of entertainment.”
Deeper into the exhibition we hit an imaginative habeas corpus in Political Correctness, a composition which came to be as Ms. Stovall was working with her collection of antique stereoviews. Here, the black and whites roll in aboard the tans which outline, if not dominate the show. “I had two cards, printed different years, with the same image of a typical African market scene, with scenic views of people selling their wares and vegetables, etc. On the back of the first printing was a written description of the scene. The Africans were described as not being far removed from the savagery of cannibalism. Their clothes were described as scanty and far from clean.” Continuing, “The other card, printed at a later date, had a much more dignified description of the Africans selling their lovely wares with their colorful native garb and exotic selves. I wanted to depict how someone was obviously enlightened from the first printing to the last, and that the negative wording was not “P.C.”.
In these days of war on two, or maybe more fronts, and political campaign fatigue grown chronic, this compilation covers territory too often overlooked and rattles an all too often frozen attention span. Suesan Stovall’s use of earth shades and natural material connects, does not blink, and as some aged and classic reworked leather bound volume, screams and whispers to the sinner and righteous alike. The exhibition, of thirty-seven pieces, suggests one think, and look, and hang on sans expectation. The art does not showoff, and she will surely have a busy year ahead.
“Suesan Stovall combines the narrative brilliance of Jacob Lawrence with the mastery of collage by Romare Bearden, but with lyrical form”, said Prof. Gates of her work. “Her use of found objects is unprecedented in the African-American artistic tradition. Her work posses and demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the combination of history and passion.”
Born and raised in New York City, Ms. Stovall, daughter of legendary Peabody and Emmy award winning journalist and correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, attended the High School of Performing Arts, graduating with honors. She attended Sarah Lawrence College. Her vocal performances have found her working with a host of bands and performing around the world on soundtracks, music videos, theatre and film. Her work has been shown in several galleries, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the Tubman African American Museum, in Macon, Georgia. Ms. Stovall currently divides her time between Los Angeles and the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.
The Rudenstine Gallery is the only exhibition space at Harvard University devoted to works by and about people of African descent. It’s curatorial mission is to support historical and contemporary practices in the visual arts. Suesan Stovall’s current exhibition there, sans et, from what these eyes of mine have seen, clearly does that.