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Arts & Culture

Radcliffe Bailey searches for life beyond the Middle Passage

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Radcliffe Bailey, Windward Coast, 2012


Wrenching percussive sounds, like something very large breaking up, emanate from a conch shell. The gratings of a ship ripped by an ocean storm, perhaps. Nearby, the floor swells in a sea of wood splinters, peaked in the shark-snouts of wind-torn waves. Poking up among them, a black head with African features shines as if rain spangled; seen, so it seems, moments before slipping under.

It's all an illusion, of course. The head is a stationary mannequin bust, covered with black paint and glitter. The sound is recorded. The tossing wave forms covering the floor's over 40-feet-long length are made of thousands of piano keys. But the horror conjured by Windward Coast, Radcliffe Bailey's installation work in his retrospective at the McNay Art Museum is tangible, a haunting. Bailey is searching for memories of the lands beyond the Middle Passage, the forced migration from Africa across the Atlantic that took uncountable towns and villages into bondage. Curated by Carol Thompson, curator of African Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, "Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine" is on view at the McNay through September 2. The exhibition focuses on three overlapping themes: water, blues, and blood, and takes its title from a series of "medicine cabinet" sculptures, such as Procession (2005), a recent acquisition of the McNay.

Born in New Jersey and raised in Atlanta, where he still resides, Bailey's first career choice was baseball. Eventually he decided he was more proficient at art, but his love of the game shows in his work. Like baseball, his art is tactical, layered, and hovers over long moments of stillness. Then, out of nowhere it seems, a sudden burst of flight bursts across the scene. Large composite works of multi-colored designs surround old photographs and antique pieces of this-and-that, all wrapped under glass. Portraits and pictures of men working in ancient fields are juxtaposed with recurring images of boats — sailboats covered in the same black glitter of the piano-wave installation, ocean-crossing slave ships, and skiffs skimming inland waterways; the last recalling childhood memories of fishing with his father. Mixed with the photographs, which were passed to Bailey through his family, are other mementos: a top hat, medicine bottles. These personal recollections join drawings of more vessels, pointed left — the compass' west — that carry loads of carved African sculptures: ancestors.

In 2006 Bailey discovered through examination of his DNA that his mother's ancestry traces to West Africa. He carries the blood of the Mende, Limba, and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone and the Bidjogo region of Guinea. Mixed among his art works in the exhibition are traditional sculptural pieces of Mende workmanship, fleshing out — like the old ones reborn — elements of African tradition sited within Bailey's own pieces. In a 1997 aquatint, Until I Die/In Dat Returnal Day, four round drawings, placed like compass points, surround an old photo of a woman. The little sketches of a boat, a chair, and complex, scratched symbols are linked by another circle inscribed in the black background, lined with words from an African-American spiritual. The composition forms the cross within a circle of the dikenga, the Kongo cosmogram recurring throughout much of Bailey's production. Like the Tibetan Buddhist mandala and the medicine wheel found in North America's Indian Country, the dikenga delineates the intersecting boundaries of the living with other worlds and can take on many forms. Bailey uses water as a symbol for the journey of the Middle Passage, but in Kongo cosmology, its surface is also the border between the living and the ancestors. In Procession, oars penetrate water, casting myriad sets of rings on the surface. They are another emanation of the dikenga, whose presence is reaffirmed by the cross dividing the water-like glass panes enclosing the large multi-colored work.

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