Called by the Spirits: Four African American Self-Taught Artists and the Venice Bennale

Called by the Spirits: Four African American Self-Taught Artists and the Venice Bennale

Article by  Ramona Austin 

Text and most photographs by Ramona Austin

Click HERE to see a slideshow of the images from this article.

There really is nothing like her, powerful and grand, intimate and small all at the same time. Venice is, by turn, a worldly voluptuary and a small town ragazza (sweetheart). She is worn and restored palaces strung like a necklace around the Grand Canal, aging skins battling with time. Inside this magnificent decay is a sparkling opulence that opens like a magician pulling beautiful crystals from a tattered cloak. Venice is a conundrum — some of her history is decidedly bawdy but she is capable of refinement of the greatest purity and spirituality — and she is ceaselessly inspirational. Her source of power and seduction is the sea that surrounds her, penetrates her and floods her every winter. Through the ages, it has brought her power and riches and the creative force of blending cultures including contact with Africa and Africans, going back to the Renaissance.

For the 54th Venice Biennale — that over-the-top extravaganza of art that descends upon the city every two years — Venice was again blending cultures. Exhibitions from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas had venues in the Giardini and the Arsenale as well as various spots around the city.

Into this mix Luciano Benetton invited four self-taught African American artists and four graffiti artists for site-specific installations at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, near the Rialto Bridge, to run concurrently with the Biennale. Soon to be the headquarters of the Benetton Group, the Fondaco was the headquarters for German merchants in the city from the 13th to the early19th century. In the 21st century it offered an architecturally significant, one-of-a kind venue that was eagerly anticipated. The American Folk Art Museum in New York City engaged Martha Henry, a much-experienced New York curator and dealer, with whom they chose the eight artists. Funding was granted through the Ford Foundation, and each artist then submitted proposals to the Benetton Group.

Lovers of self-taught art made travel arrangements to participate in a history-making event — an unparalleled opportunity to meet artists, curators, public and private collectors and institutions interested in this art from around the world. However, close to the date of the Biennale’s opening, the partnership with the museum dissolved. The American Folk Art Museum financially collapsed, and sold its building to the Museum of Modern Art. The complete story of the venture’s demise must be left for hindsight and future telling. The four graffiti artists ultimately did not go to Venice.

This is instead an account of four African American self-taught artists: Lonnie Holley, Gregory Warmack (known as Mr. Imagination), Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas and Kevin Sampson, with their curator Martha Henry, all of whom resolved to come anyway. It is the story of an ancient garden they transformed with their art and the gifts given to them by the sea and long dead ancestral spirits.

The best preparation for world travel is to be an African American coming from the South, as Lucas and Holley from Alabama or from the inner city as Sampson and Mr. Imagination from Newark and Chicago. Negotiating new beginnings requires a fluency in cultural psychology and sometimes in employing adept social disguises. Such skills have been necessary for existential survival in an American landscape riven with cultural obstacles.

As Lonnie Holley said, “We was born in a fearsome time.” This “fearsome time” was not only about race, but the atomic bomb and the intermittent hostility of America to its youth. The improvisatory aesthetic of African American culture and the community-building power of “call and response” in its music and literary traditions create on-the-spot solutions while traversing the unfamiliar. All four artists draw deeply from this cultural formation. Lucas and Mr. Imagination had already been in Europe for artist residencies and exhibitions in France. Holley had been to England. For Sampson, coming to Venice was his first experience outside the United States. These artists, ranging in age from 57 to 63, have been making art for most of their lives and have been career artists for three decades or more.

When the word came that the project had been called off, the artists had been furiously working for four weeks on installation strategies and gathering their materials to ship to Venice by mid-May for installation by June 1st. Each felt the weight of the unique and historic nature of the invitation. When the project was halted, Holley wondered aloud, “Are we not good enough?”

A sense that the project was ordained by forces larger than themselves and that they represented their country as African American artists made them resolve with their curator, Martha Henry, to go to Venice and complete the project without further support from the institutions that had originated the venture. Henry was able to get from the American Folk Art Museum what was contractually due them, and this paid for their expenses, materials and installations. (Their plane tickets had been purchased months ahead.) The obstacles were also physical. Charlie Lucas had recent serious back surgery. Mr. Imagination two weeks before leaving had a freak automobile accident that pulled his hips from their sockets, and thus had to use a cane. No one could have imagined how difficult the experience eventually would be or how spiritually fulfilling.

Each of the four sees himself as creating beauty from the detritus of the everyday world. All see themselves as teachers, edifiers and men of skill. All see themselves as anointed to speak in the tongue of made things. All four are sophisticates of visual language, and they honor each other. Charlie Lucas praises Holley’s talent as “a great horse galloping across the plains spewing forth so much creativity that he needs pack mules to follow him with the load.”

Their original proposals for the Biennale were diverse but spiritually linked. Holley called his project From the Earth Mother to the Black Mother and Back Again. In his proposal statement he said, “We take all this stuff from Mother Earth and throw it right back at her and she recycles it again…. I am creating a temporary environment at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi that shows my artistic development up to the present moment. All aspects of my work — carving, assemblage, found-object sculpture, painting, music and poetry will be included. I am showing people my whole development. I am showing them who I am today. With this project, I want to honor and thank my ancestors and my country for everything they have given me.”

The ongoing subject of Mr. Imagination’s art is “that beauty is everywhere…. It is found in the junk and trash of everyday life that I recycle and transform into beautiful objects, furniture and structures.” Mr. Imagination proposed an Arch of Unity. He had originally intended to build a grotto that related to the unique history and grotto architecture of Italy encompassing natural caves like the Grotta Azzurra in Capri, religious grottoes dedicated to Our Lady and artificial garden sculptures such as Tiberius’s cave. He has built many grottoes for public and private commissions in various cities in the U.S. However, he determined that that project was too ambitious because of time constraints. His goal became a triumphal arch reminiscent of his recent rebirth from a devastating fire that ruined his home and work several years ago and from which he was now arising like a phoenix. The grotto was to be a unifier, symbolic of pulling people together through items that he would embed in the arch and thus unite with his own story. Charlie Lucas’s proclamation, “I create beauty from trash,” does not prevent him from “keeping things pretty raw.” His concept of beauty is rich and complex. “I don’t prettify because society isn’t pretty.” His monumental metal humans and animals are created with an acetylene torch as he looks, “through the eyes of my great-grandfather, a blacksmith, and my father, an auto mechanic, or when I weave bands of metal I am honoring my grandmother who made baskets and quilts.” With his project, he planned to “create an environment of many sculptures of humans and animals…showing people coming together in harmony.” He would scour a scrap metal yard near Venice for material. “Car rims are heavy objects which will ground the sculptures from tipping over. Long metal rods will achieve the height inherent in the Fondaco’s space.”

Kevin Sampson has been constructing boats in his art for several years. A propos of the cultural history and environmental ethos of Venice he proposed a project, a boat, USS Palin, named for Sarah Palin, a key representative of America’s ultraconservatives, which included an invocation from the Book of Ezekiel (12: 1–2), “Oh mortals, thou dwellest among the rebellious breed. They have eyes to see but see not; they have ears to hear, but hear not….”

The son of an activist father, Sampson’s works are polemical, commenting on the current state of politics and social relations in the United States. He wanted this project to enjoin the national conversation on civility. “I have decided to build an environment that contains a symbolic vessel that will be powered by the wind that is blowing across the world.” Sampson’s vessel would be an international symbol of war and peace as well as colonization. His boat would “try to invoke insight to the blind eye that too many have turned toward our fast-brewing storm of national conflict.”

These four original plans were now deemed physically impossible; they were replaced with moment-by-moment improvisation when the artists and Henry landed in Venice in early May. Since the Benetton Group cancelled their exhibition space, they went about finding a new space and assembling materials for the work they had to rethink and still had to make. The indefatigable Holley began making a heraldic standard for the artists and their Venetian fraternity that he mounted on the two buildings they would occupy. The process of their forays and inquiries led to making their first apartment headquarters a sort of Salon des Refusés where they met with other artists and the cultural cognoscenti of Venice.

The young people of Venice — natives and tourists alike — 
flocked to these artists, taking them into their homes and to 
restaurants and bars, playing music together as they were 
fascinated by the charismatic personalities and cool demeanors 
of the four men.

The artists were offered several spaces for exhibition, one of which included a private island location. However, partnering with gallery director Karine Trotel, the artists settled on a thousand-year-old garden, L’Espace Re-evolution, entered from the Zattere on the Giudecca Canal across from Giudecca Island (Venice’s ancient Jewish enclave from which the word “ghetto” was derived). The garden’s few plants are left to the care of the elements, and its ground is mostly bricked, but what dirt remained yielded bones convincing the artists that spirits on both sides of the water had called them there. It also possessed a derelict elegance that only great age can bestow. It was the perfect space, in tune with the sensibilities of the artists and the aesthetic of their works. The artists named their installations The Roots of the Spirit.

Looking from the open garden space through the short tunnel to the canal evokes historical images of exits from and entrances to the sea, not the least of which is the light-filled rectangle of blue sea and sky exiting the slave quarters of Gorée Island, a historic slave port on the coast of Senegal. Five hundred years ago, in an era when Venice was a great sea power, this portal led directly to the mouths of slave ships swallowing their cargo. This evocation was not lost on the artists.

The power, majesty and terror of the sea filled the work of numerous artists at the Biennale, not the least of which was the contribution of Anselm Keifer in the gallery Magazini del Sale 226, which was next to the four artists’ garden. Keifer’s installation, Salt of the Earth, consisted of standing, oxidized-metal panels anchored by a wall painting, Arche, on which floated a three-dimensional U-boat freighted with the epic cultural memories for which the German artist is well known. It is profound how the garden installations of the self-taught artists resonated with Keifer’s images. They shared with him the same potent humanist underpinnings, as well as materials.

It is uncanny how Holley, Sampson, Mr. Imagination and Lucas accomplished with astonishing facility the goals of the Arte Povera [Poor Art] movement, which advocated experimentation, innovation and humble materials. Founded by Italian art critic Germano Celant in the late 1960s, it is addressed by the work of Keifer. The complete authenticity of the honest materials used in the four artists’ constructions bested similar work, such as a boat in a tank made from rags, wood and sticks by Norwegian artist Ida Ekland that was installed at the Arsenale. Ekland’s work could not match the integrity and compositional fluidity of a vessel created with like materials by Holley.

Holley’s process, as that of the other artists, was a whirlwind of improvisatory magic. Seaweed, logs and other detritus were pulled from the sea, later to be returned.

Sampson rescued crystals from a beautiful old lamp thrown from the gutting of an old apartment. He hung them together in curtains of seaweed on the garden wall, elegant signatures of the source of Venice’s ancient wealth and artistic influence. Small, refined figures and a desiccated salamander also were half hidden in the walls. On the wall Sampson hung a box, My Black Madonna is Michelle Obama, its interior a painted arrangement of recycled doll heads in black masks, artificial flowers and sprigs, wire, green leaves and Christ crucified — a narrative of beauty and rebirth defiantly redefined.

Mr. Imagination transcended his injuries by creating a dress of wire that he could make while sitting down — a formal silhouette with pleated collar accompanied by heeled shoes. This was part of a discourse about Venice engaged in by the artists that somehow recalled courtiers and class. Brushes made from harvested reeds also were used by Mr. Imagination to make a triptych of heads with tall, crowning headdresses, a reworking of a familiar theme in his work.

Due to his back surgery, Charlie Lucas drew incessantly while lying in bed. His contribution to the exhibition consisted of two large and sinuous figural paintings on cloth, hung like flags on either side of an installation of castoff Styrofoam, string, wood and other forms of unbiodegradable refuse configured by Holley. His installations refuted the ordinariness of these materials by aesthetic strength and formal integrity.

Two important works by Holley of the 32 he added to the installation were a large cross dedicated to Luciano Benetton for his original invitation to Venice and a box filled with mixed-media constructions, an homage to the children ravaged by the Haitian earthquake.

Transformed in five days of installation, the garden — changed with the detritus of daily life into a metamorphosis of mind and spirit — fortified the viewer with its soul force. Looking from the open air of the garden through the tunnel gateway to the world outside its walls, one could step beyond its constructed humanity and witness the widening waters of the Giudecca Canal and on to the open embrace of the sea.

RAMONA AUSTIN is the former Curator of the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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