Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Critique of Service


Service: Colin Quashie’s Mural cum Art Installation for the
 School of Government at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
a review­­­­­
Frank Martin

Artist Colin Quashie’s recently completed mural, entitled Service, focuses on the intricacy of interactions between art and politics in a complex, expressive artwork commissioned by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government.

Noted as a controversial artist, Quashie, based in Charleston, South Carolina, undertook the completion of this project sustained by the patronage of the Local Government Federal Credit Union. The painting commemorates the contributions of African Americans to North Carolina’s local history, and addresses omissions from popular cultural memory. The circumstances of this image, and its commission offer a rich opportunity for social commentary and a dialogue on culture, race, reasoning, community, and the aesthetics of public memorials in America.

Although Service is presented as a traditional mural painting, its placement, combined with the artist’s contrived design motifs and the mural’s contextual cultural inferences, morphs the work’s significance away from being a “history painting” into a nexus of relevant political issues. Approximately 5’ high and 50’ long, the figures represented are rendered in thin, translucent oil glazes. Despite its concessions to the conventions of naturalistic figurative art, this work’s conceptual richness and informative, amusing, complexity make it more than a simple mural; it is a “conversation piece” in the very best sense of that term.

The ideas suggested in this work obliquely confront visitors to the ground floor dining room of the Knapp-Sanders Building on the Chapel Hill campus. Operating more like a satirically conceived performative installation/sculpture rather than the simple mural it coyly seeks to delude us it could be, its complex ideas correspond with the socially critical and ironic implications associated with other works by Quashie, whose rambunctious contentions with our American culture often simultaneously entertain while interrogating the presumed motivations and assumptions of his audiences. Quashie seduces us into believing that this image is “safe” and the mural seems initially to offer few surprises: that is to say, it does the work that it was expected to do by representing a series of figures of historic significance. Service, however deals with more than simple appearances.

The image’s controversy begins with where it has been situated. Instead of placing the mural in the upstairs atrium, beside earlier historical murals, Quashie has positioned it downstairs on the ground floor. The mural is intended to celebrate images of African-Americans omitted in the past from the official historical record. Its location by the cafeteria underscores the reality that for many years past, in North Carolina’s history (and throughout the South), the only possibility for African-Americans to be employed in such a space as this School of Government Building would have been as workers in the kitchen or in some form of menial labor.

Acknowledging historic exclusion of African-Americans, Quashie, places the “Greensboro Four,” Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Jibreel Khazan (formely known as Ezell Blair, Jr.), and Franklin McCain, at eye level with the audience, shown larger than life, emphasizing their importance in acting as catalytic agents, fighting for desegregation, having initiated the historic Greensboro sit-in. They are represented as chefs or “fry-cooks” working literally in the fire of the alchemical kitchen of social change. Moreover, as personifications of forces for change, they are closest to the modern audience in the fictive space, and closest to the actual kitchen of the real-space restaurant. The “Greensboro Four” shape our experience in the metaphorical restaurant, and have helped “cook up” what we are being offered as a transformative experience (our contemporarily enhanced equality and inclusion).

The power of this presentation is the fact that Quashie has now chosen to segregate the images of blacks even as they are gradually being included in the official canons of history. This separation is itself politically interesting and significant. Quashie has elliptically attacked the racial context of the commission for the mural, despite or because it is intended as an homage to Civil Rights and "black" history. He instinctively rejected the idea of placing this mural with the earlier historical murals and offers instead something unique and unexpected. In place of what could have been a repetitive, pointless gesture, we have a dynamic, politicized conversation; witty, amusing, and not entirely pleasant. No solutions to the confusions of racial conversations can be achieved by a pretense that the past never happened. Understanding this (for both artist and patron) is the difference between generating interesting, meaningful art, as contrasted with stale, empty or meaningless gestures.

The representations of the Civil Rights workers who staged the lunch counter sit-ins at Greensboro’s Woolworths Department Store anchors the image as a visual metaphor, thus, we may sweep into the matrix of a contrived environment to locate a history painting in the realist tradition.  With the main protagonists shown in fry-cook's outfits, the visual pun is established, a wry tease upon which the mural’s title, Service, can now play continually. The work raises several variations on this theme simultaneously: first, the fact that African-Americans were refused service at segregated establishments (until the 1960s); second, the service to our country that these courageous students and their fore-bearers and counterparts provided in risking their lives to enhance our understanding of the inequities of the time; third, how these Civil Rights workers are serving the general public in helping to create a more equitable American society based on their risky venture; and finally, the fact that most often Africa-Americans were and perhaps still are associated with service or domestic positions in our American popular conscience.

Is this by the artist’s intention? Yes and no. Some is “happy accident,” some is clever and careful contrivance. However, this representation of a group meal invites comparison with another art historical representation, bringing to mind Leonardo's, (yes, as in da Vinci’s), Last Supper. Not only does the lunch motif position this work squarely in some kind of comparative contention with Western tradition, but its contextual shift to “secular” and “legal” as opposed to a “religious” and “spiritual” cultural impact says something about a significant, modern human shift as well.

The main point is this image is a conceptual work being presented deceptively as  a straight-forward painting. The grouping of figures in the lunchroom setting is a pretext for why such a diverse collection of individuals may be arranged in a relational association, and use of this metaphor benefits the work’s overall conceptual structure. The allegorical luncheonette offers a fitting setting for the work’s historical theme. The image’s messages are transmitted as much by its concept, location and context, as by who or what has been represented.

Beyond the contextual politics, the individuals who are shown in the image, were suggested by a committee established specifically for that purpose. Quashie has blogged his research into the lives of the diverse figures, including: pamphleteer, David Walker (born in 1785), author of an early anti-slavery document urging the enslaved populace to rebel against their captors; writer Charles Chesnutt (born 1858); the amazing Pea Island Life Savers under the command of Richard Etheridge; civil rights activist, Ella Jo Baker (born 1903); concluding with historian John Hope Franklin (born 1915). Many of the details from the historical record as well as the artist’s thoughts on his process are included at www.quashie.com.

As a final nod to his own connection to the legacy of institutionalized slavery, Quashie indicates his own ancestry as a product of the African diaspora by showing an anonymous slave couple in panel number seven, using as his models an image of his own mother, shown in profile looking upward and to the viewer’s right, and an interpolated image of his father. This element of personal history in an image about exclusion, courage in the face of discrimination, and the search for equality, a struggle for a “seat at the table,” is itself a powerful statement regarding the impact of constructs of race on contemporary society, as it were, up to the very creation of the artwork itself. This dialectical approach to artistic representation is full of intrigue and interest. To our collective benefit, I suggest that we have been “quashied,” a verb, meaning here to cause us to consider, even against our will, the complexities of America's legacy of law, race, and our ever-curious modes of reasoning.

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