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We See The Promised Land

Feb 2, 2006 - Apr 22, 2006
10am - 5pm

“Over a year ago, Rebecca DeMarais, director of Youth Art Connection (a project of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta) invited me and my South Bronx-based team of young artists K.O.S. (for “Kids of Survival”) to consider an art making project inspired by the writings, sermons and legacy of my childhood hero the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all made in collaboration with Atlanta based youth. It was an exciting proposal, especially since the Youth Art Connection studio space is located on Auburn Avenue just blocks from where so much history was made.

At first our plans were relatively modest. Through visits to The M.L.K. Historical Site, The King Center, the original Ebenezer Baptist Church and the study of audio and video recordings and documentaries about King and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement a group of about 12 young participants ages 6 to 18 along with several students from the Atlanta College of Art would study the history, ideas and ethos ideas of King while hoping this engagement with his thought and action would inspire us to create original works of art for a small exhibition perhaps at the original Ebenezer Baptist Church.

After several meeting with several local artists, teachers, National Park representatives, we all decided to expand the ambition and scope of this project, not only concentrating on King’s work but to include the writings of several other important African American authors for consideration. Soon we were invited to exhibit the results of our work at The Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia in their gallery at SunTrust Plaza in downtown Atlanta, moving us to create several major new works for the occasion of Black History Month. The great challenge was to create a body of rigorous new paintings, remaining consistent and true to the K.O.S. method and standard while enlisting the new perspectives and abilities of the Atlanta youth, ages 6 through 18, producing a genuinely collaborative experience for everyone involved.

During the first few sessions, participants made free association drawings while listening to King’s great sermons “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” “I See the Promised Land” and others. We also listened to historic recordings of the “Freedom Songs” created by youth marching for the movement in the Sixties.

During this process, what first appeared in the drawings and paintings were mostly obvious even cliché imagery associated with the Civil Rights Movement: images of Rev. King’s face, placards, hands and fists, crowd scenes, footprints, roads. But soon, these unimaginative motifs fell away and far more abstract and mysterious forms came into view: complex cruciforms, flames, endless triangular forms, brilliant, ethereal colors. The art was becoming about the creation and protection of Light. Enlightenment, Illumination and Dreaming. The paintings became spiritual.

While the young artists all worked on their own individual interpretations of this Light, we were all coming together to develop ideas for the large works made in collaboration with K.O.S. back in New York and the South Bronx:

INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL from 1999 was inspired by our first project made with folks from Youth Art Connection in 1998. We were working on a multi panel work based on The Psalms, including a work made with 15-year-old Sylvia Jones (now a Program Assistant at Youth Art Connection.) In Harriet Jacobs harrowing narrative, she writes about her hiding in her grandmother’s attic (a space measuring only 7 x 9 x 3 inches) in Edenton, North Carolina for seven years. Jacobs’s reports that one of the few events that gave her any relief from her misery was the Christmas time celebration of the Johnkonnen – young male slaves were allowed to have carnival dressed in costumes elaborately festooned with many colored ribbons and scraps of cloth.

I asked the young members of K.O.S. if they could represent the color of their joy, what would that color be? After the creation of these original colors, we matched these hues of hope and liberation with satin ribbons that stretch over the surface of a canvas lined with book pages from Jacob’s great memoir. In 2006 several of the ribbons were replaced with colors created by the Atlanta youth. Another INCIDENTS painting is included in this exhibition, with 13 stripes in 13 different reds created by 13 individual participants.

Another stripe work, LETTER FROM A BIRMINGHAM CITY JAIL, takes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s great and revolutionary document as inspiration, with the participants creating their own original shades of black painted over a ground of book pages adhered to a canvas approximately 70 x 90” – the size of the footprint of the jail cell where King composed his letter.

One of the most recurring conversations during the workshops was the question “Is there one color that most represents humanity?” After much experimentation, conjecture and dialogue, we collectively determined that the color of blood – a luminous, powerful and living red would serve our purpose in our paintings SUFFERING AND FAITH (an early essay by the young Rev. King) and the large I SEE THE PROMISED LAND installed directly on the MOCA GA gallery wall. The smaller I SEE THE PROMISED LAND works are all inspired by King’s belief that a complete life is a “great triangle” with depth, breadth and transcendent height. The triangles are painted with individual colors representing the in-exhaustible hope of each young artist. With apex of the triangles just above the edge of the book page, our triangles allude to a complete life, Jacob’s ladder, a highway to heaven, the trinity, the mountaintop where Rev. King (and we) can perpetually see the Promised Land of the beloved community.

Adhered directly to the gallery wall, these works must be destroyed at the end of the exhibition. But samples of the colors are retained by K.O.S. only to be recreated in other exhibition venues worldwide in the future. Like leader like King, the moral is that while one can kill the messenger, you cannot kill the message.

Other works include 12 small but powerful works on paper inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (2)” better known by its first line “WHAT HAPPENS TO A DREAM DEFERRED?”…ending with the lines “Does it sag like a heavy load? Or does it EXPLODE?” Employing watercolors and ink on abaca paper laid over the printed poem, the young artists created their self-portraits as explosions – some violent, some redemptive, some deeply mysterious.

Our continuing series on INVISIBLE MAN (after Ralph Ellison) took a new form when we asked six-year old Iam Mars to paint within the ciphers IM on a ground of pages taken from the novel. After much consideration, Iam mixed a combination of matte black and gold paint combined with “some red that you cannot see” to represent what he calls his Spirit.”

Finally, our newest work features King’s iconic speech “I HAVE A DREAM” only to have the text carefully buried under layers and layers of gossamer matte white paint suggesting the dangers of having King’s dream deferred and “disappeared” through ambivalence and neglect.”

-Tim Rollins