This past weekend, Piedmont Park Art & Crafts Festival showcased some interesting perspectives on life and culture in the Southern States. Artists from all over presented their work in photography, painting, metal works, sculpture etc. in white tents along the pathways of the park. An array of different colored peoples populated the scenic landscape against the Atlanta skyline exchanging ideas across cultural backgrounds.
The distinction between art and craft blurred with works such as Mattie’s People. “Dolls with Attitude” are handcrafted miniaturized brown figurines. Mattie, the engineer, crafted her first doll 30 years ago for her 4-year old-niece at the time, but then did not pursue it any further until she retired. Since then, she has made over 140 posable dolls and participated in a variety of art shows. She starts out with the body form and then constructs the features, which dictate how their dress and/or adornment. From elder ladies of the church to contemporary articulations of fashion, using printed textiles as the skin and clothes, she approaches themes that suggest the obscurity of the self. Have we become indistinguishable from the character we are dressed to play or have we realized finally realized that we ARE indistinguishable from our visual representations?
For centuries, dolls have been residual of contemporary ideals and sartorial culture. Children and Adults have used dolls to articulate their aesthetic convictions for centuries only limited by materials available. Whether alabaster, wood, porcelain, cloth or clay, dolls have traveled time and remain a feature of our human culture. Mattie’s dolls add a whimsical, playful but sociologically insightful dimension to the landscapes, abstracts, and sculptures of the festival.
Kenya born artist, Kennedy Waireri, is inspired by African traditions and his transatlantic experience. His painted and printed works range from African imagery to Black celebrity figures on canvas. His Maasai warriors and Tuareg Woman draw from his exposure to indigenous cultures of Africa, while his celebrity iconography reflects his exposure to popular culture and media. Jay-Z before of a NY cityscape and Jimi Hendrix in abstract form were popular pieces in his presentation.
Mr. Waireri explains the origin of the art inspired by Africa as a fascinating revelation. The BEAUTY of these people and their practices only revealed itself to him AFTER returning to Kenya from living in the US for some time. From then, African iconography proliferated in his work. Why? Why does beauty appear to us once our perspective changes? Are we incapable of conceiving beauty in ourselves without the “help” of society? Does the social construction of beauty and idealization problematize the actual perception of beauty in us and others? How do we become mirrors to ourselves so that we may recognize our beauty?
Kennedy’s embrace of his oversaturated visual index of African imagery as a reaction to Western culture was the construction of a mirror, but would he have been able to see this beauty had he never traveled to The States? Does the melting pot of the world produce mirrors or is it the disruption of our social norms and ideals that offer opportunities of introspection and reflection? Is this “appreciation” a mere capitalization on the exotic-ization of indigenous cultures or the beautification of a people through the presentation and exposure of traditional practices and cultures. Afterall, “All Art is Propaganda” and this one is especially beautiful.
Los Angeles native, Ronnie Phillips’ earlier career as a photographer is evident in his work today. Super-imposed, sepia-toned photographs of his family and close friends surrounded by acrylic painted landscapes; abstractions; and spaces suggests influences of Japanese woodblock prints; Dada surrealism; Rothko compositions, and Radcliffean assemblages. These features help articulate varying aspects of Black diasporic life and experience while positing itself in the post-modern context.
In Flag Roots, the United States flag’s stars are replaced with cowrie shells. Cowrie shells often used as jewelry today, has also been used as currency in African nations. African resources reconstituting the symbolic representation of each statehood within the U.S. nation illustrates Africa’s contribution to the formation of the U.S. nation. The exploitation of the Black body in service of European initiatives has become a significant tenet in the heritage of the Black community in the U.S., and source of much collective pain and frustration. The white stripes of the flag are charged with slave-era iconography like slave ships, African masks, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas etc. reinforcing the success of the nation as a product of the exploitation of a people.
Phillips’ repeated use of images re-contextualizes the subject, challenging the voyeur to constantly renegotiate the objective of subjects within different theoretical spaces and grants the subject the freedom of becoming a fixed representation of a theme. While many of his works do explore themes of slavery and oppression; youth, hope, faith, love, and friendship are also concepts that pervade his collages.
While Piedmont Park overflowed with art, food, music and culture, these are of the works that I found most compelling and evocative of the variety of ideas and perspectives being explored in art today. As discourse on visual culture continues to specialize and negotiate boundaries we see a concerted effort in understanding life and its intricacies through the representation of things. A global perspective, thorough appreciation all things and a recognition of collective trauma and its effects are necessary to approach any kind of comprehension of life. So here goes!