Show features 49 works by American artist to commemorate Black History Month
They huddle in the depths of the cabins, shielding themselves with the warm glow of candlelight, not daring to look outside until morning.
The morning belongs to the master, but the night is theirs.
Their only respite, their only taste of freedom, the time they get to be real people gathering as a real family.
No, they don’t dare spoil this time even by casting a silhouette against the light. Artist Joseph Holston doesn’t allow it in his painting, not even as a tangle of exterior forces create a captive web outside the cabins. Or is that web actually the free spirits of the inhabitants, wandering into the night? And dreaming.
Dreaming of freedom.
Holston leaves interpretation up to the viewer by simply labeling his painting, “The Quarters,” which is part of “Movement II: Living in Bondage — Life on the Plantation.”
He created this piece, along with 48 others in 2008 for the series, Color in Freedom: Journey along the Underground Railroad. The exhibit was developed by the University of Maryland College and is toured by the International Arts & Artists in Washington, D.C.
And one of its stops is the West Baton Rouge Museum, where it runs through Sunday, March 24, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as Black History Month.
Holston works out of his studio in Takoma Park, Md. He has had success as a commercial artist and printmaker, but his cubist abstractionist painting style has gained national attention.
“I discovered the exhibit on the Internet,” Lauren Davis said. “The paintings were so beautiful, and the show was perfect for our commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Davis is the museum’s curator. She knew the paintings were going to be dramatic, but she wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of this drama.
Change that. The story unfolds on its own stage not as a play but a four-part symphony. Music was a part of everyday life; theater wasn’t.
“The paintings are huge,” Davis said.
“And there are 49. We couldn’t exhibit this show and tell the whole story if we left any of the paintings out, but we didn’t have enough space on our gallery walls to show all of them.”
So, museum staffers quickly constructed free-standing walls only days before the exhibit’s opening on Jan. 19.
And Davis is right. If only one of the paintings had been left out, the story would be incomplete. True, there are no faces, but Holston’s characters are filled with emotion.
And they sing. Listen close and let your imagination go to work. They raise their voices in praise at the beginning of the first movement, “The Unknown World,” which Holston depicts in bright oranges, reds and yellows.
“This is where they start out in Africa,” Davis said. “You can see the king in the center. They’re free.”
Celebratory praise quickly gives way to misery as shackles are clamped on a man’s arm in the second painting. This misery goes deeper than blues, and it breaks more than the heart, especially when standing before Holston’s painting, “Unbearable Loss.”
A child clings to his mother as he is dragged away by his new owner. The family unit is broken, and people suddenly are property.
And Holston depicts this horror through color and paint strokes.
It’s here where the scenes become darker, where the first movement gives way to the second, “Living in Bondage — Life on the Plantation.”
Where in the midst of darkness’ oppression is a glimmer of warmth within the cabins.
“It’s really the only painting in this part of the show that has real light in it,” Davis said. “Maybe it’s because they’re away from the fields. It’s the only time they’re together.”
And when they’re together, there’s hope — hope that unfolds in the next movement, “Journey of Escape,” and becomes reality in the final movement, “Color in Freedom.”
Holston traveled the Underground Railroad route in preparation for this series. The route was not a railroad at all but a system developed to help fugitive slaves escape from plantations in the South to the safe haven of the North.
President Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, which proclaimed that the enslaved in the Confederate territory were free. Lincoln’s action was based on his constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces and did not require Congressional action. The proclamation ordered the army to treat slaves as free people.
Yet war continued to rage, and the order could not immediately be enforced. And the proclamation didn’t apply to five states that weren’t in rebellion.
Slavery wasn’t completely abolished until two years later, when, in December 1865, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
But some slaves had already traveled the path to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Now viewers are taking that journey through Holston’s work.
Holston’s “paintings contrast the brutal ugliness of slavery with the overwhelming courage of those who survived it, escaped it and worked to end it,” the museum’s exhibit card states. “Holston portrays the human capacity for cruelty with sunning poignancy and the human capacity for hope with heartfelt but measured joy ... Through it all, the viewer has a visceral sense of ‘journey,’ of following a path and gains a profound understanding of all that this struggle encompassed.”
As for Holston, his works can be found throughout the nation in permanent collections, public and private museums and universities. Color in Freedom also tours with Holston’s etchings and drawings, most of which are studies for the paintings.
The series has been on tour since its completion in 2008, a trail that has included a 2010 presentation at the United Nations Missions in Geneva, Switzerland, under the sponsorship of the United States Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.
Holston also created the painting, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to commemorate the dedication of the Martin Luther King National Memorial in Washington.
The screen print created from this painting has been included in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress and the Federal Reserve Board.
Now, there are a few other items to see in this exhibit besides Holston’s paintings. Davis has localized the story by including actual slave shackles and a specially made quilt depicting patterns used as a code along the Underground Railroad route.
Quilts were placed on fences, and different patterns let travelers know if the path was safe.
“But I only put out a few things, because the paintings tell the story,” Davis said. “They really stand by themselves.”
It’s Holston’s journey that turns hopelessness into hope, where even the plantation can’t stamp out freedom lingering in the warmth of candlelight.