by Reggie Rodrigue
Kneel down and tremble before your new god, world! Like a phoenix reborn from the ashes of a bombed-out antebellum kitchen, she has arisen! Her name is … AUNT JEMIMA, and she’s servin’ up a plate full of revenge pancakes for you sorry bitches to choke on … along with some sweetness and motherly love!
Detail of the central mural of the exhibition “Uncle Tom’s Watermelon Rebellion of ’89” by Johnathan “JJ” Wilson and Pat Phillips
At least, that’s the tone of most of Johnathan “JJ” Wilson and Pat Phillips’ exhibition “Uncle Tom’s Watermelon Rebellion of ’89” in the James Mallia Gallery of the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, LA. The title of the exhibition is a mash-up of the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin“, the stereotypical connection between African-American’s and watermelon, and the birth years of Wilson and Phillips.
In the center of the gallery lies a devastating mural by Wilson and Phillips of that icon of African American subservience, Aunt Jemima or Mammy. She has been remade in the likeness of the Hindu goddess of time, change, destruction, empowerment and cosmic benevolence, Kali. Her robust and corpulent frame towers over a waffle cone and a bed of ice cream, complete with candy sprinkles and a cherry on top! Like many Hindu gods, Wilson and Phillips’s Aunt Jemima is endowed with a multitude of heads and a host of arms which wield various talismans and weapons including a sword, a rooster talon, a lollipop, a plate of ashen pancakes, railroads spikes and two effigies. One is a blue corpse; the other effigy is of John Henry, the steel-driving man of American folklore.
The mural is a joint salvo by the two artists, whose aims were to redraft the exhausted and offensive stereotypes of African American folklore into images of subversive power and authority. In this sense , the duos’ mural of Aunt Jemima turns a symbol of African American/female servitude into a seething totem of cosmic motherhood as well as cosmic wrath. She represents all that is beyond and within time and creation – a notable step up from the menial pigeonhole that is the role of the mammy. Another notable facet of the Aunt Jemima mural is how form follows function here. As the mural is meant to flesh out the multiple hidden aspects locked inside the character of Aunt Jemima, Wilson and Phillips follow suit pictorially – blending their two distinct graphic styles into the depiction. Throughout the mural Phillips’ thick swaths of spray paint, squat modeling and his “staying within the lines” color-blocking give way to Wilson’s more nuanced and obsessive, calligraphic line and his play with accidental paint drips. This mural is a tour-de-force in both aesthetic and political terms.
From the mural, Wilson and Phillips diverge on their own paths, creating two distinct wings for their own personal works on either side of the gallery. Wilson’s work concerns the character of Lil’ Sambo and Phillips work centers around the folk hero, John Henry. Both icons act as masculine consorts to the central figure of Aunt Jemima.
All of Wilson’s works are painted on cheap plywood squares. Upon these abject grounds, Wilson deploys a palimpsest of painterly abstraction and a succession of prints all based from a single drawing of Lil’ Sambo which he produced at Freetown Studios.
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: Betrayal of the King,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Ogre,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Tyrant,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Heart,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Protector,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Martyr,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012
Yet, this image of Lil’ Sambo, it ain’t yo’ Pappy’s! In the classic tales, Lil’ Sambo is blacker than tar, has bug eyes, huge white lips and is constantly getting in trouble when his dimwitted schemes backfire. Wilson, on the other hand, depicts him as a decapitated head with three eyes, three tongues protruding from a gaping maw adorned with a grill made of crucifixes, three earrings on each ear and a tuft of hair that doubles as an atomic mushroom cloud.
He is the embodiment of the Holy Trinity of Christianity, the more base yet cosmic/chthonic forces of pagan mythology such as the Greek Titans, or even such literary characters as H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz. He is simultaneously the way toward salvation and oblivion, and in this sense can be compared to the trickster gods and deities of various world mythologies, ie: the Norse God Loki, the Native American spirit animals Coyote and Raven, or more germanely, the Yoruban Orisha of enlightenment through chaos, Eshu or Papa Legba (who is also associated with the number three).
By depicting Lil’ Sambo, in this light, Wilson manages to wrest him from the curse of being perceived as an incompetent buffoon to the stature of a divine being who uses deception and betrayal to shock the human race into a finer-tuned perception of reality as a process that necessarily involves moving through pain toward successive plateaus of ever-widening enlightenment.
The signifying and subversion continue on Pat Phillips’ wing of the exhibition with his works devoted to bringing the tall tale of John Henry, the steel-driving man, up to date. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, John Henry was said to be a freed slave who worked as a steel-driver for an American railroad company during the Reconstruction Era. Steel driving involved hammering holes into solid rock by hand. The holes would then be used to house dynamite, which, when detonated, would clear paths for railroad tracks through the American landscape of the West. It was through the back-breaking work of men like John Henry that the expansion of America across the continent really began in earnest. Railroads were vital to this expansion, and manual labor provided by men like Henry, along with prisoners in chain gangs, was crucial to the success of America’s Doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Without the speed of locomotive travel and its ability to deliver supplies, the assimilation and domestication of the Wild West would have been a much more difficult and time consuming proposition.
At the time, America was knee-deep in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and the machine was in ascendance. A steam-powered hammer had been invented, and it threatened to displace the steel-drivers. According to the legend, John Henry challenged his boss to a race between man and machine to save his job and the jobs of his fellow African American steel-drivers. By the end of the story, Henry is said to have bested the machine, but not without giving his life for the cause. Upon beating the jackhammer, Henry collapses on the ground and dies from exhaustion.
In the decades since the tall tale came about, John Henry has surfaced in pop culture in a variety of songs, plays, books and advertisements. Most notably, he has been used as a symbol of human dignity in the face of global mechanization and exploitative labor practices in the workplace by labor movements and as a symbol of racial pride, unity and tolerance by civil rights activists. Within Phillips’s work, all of these associations come into play, but he also looks to John Henry as a patron saint for graffiti artists and taggers who work on trains and/or in train yards. In Phillips’ view, they both are underdogs who find their own ways to challenge the dominant systems which conspire to oppress and devalue them as creative individuals.
Pat Phillips, “Henry vs. the Machine,” mixed media on wood panel, 2012
Phillips is a long time graffiti artist and tagger himself, and as such, his style of painting and his subject matter draw from this experience. Aerosol paint, flash pen work and distressed surfaces are used by Phillips to connect his work to the graffitti and tagging he did in the past as well as the graffiti and tagging taking place in the street today. Though his style is rather simplistic, it serves a definite purpose as a delivery system for the complex compositions and difficult subject matter he conjures.
With “Henry vs. the Machine,” we are witness to the aftermath of the battle royale between John Henry and the steam-powered jack hammer. Yet, Henry is in the guise of a boxer. The only hint that this is a painting of John Henry comes from his name painted on the bottom of the canvas and the occasional railroad spike flying through space after our protagonist throws the KO punch that explodes the machine into it’s constituent parts (along with some teeth?). It’s telling that in the center of this explosion hovers a US marshal’s badge, equating the defunct machine with American authority/oppression. It becomes apparent that all is smoke and mirrors in this work. Henry is a stand-in for every African American who has challenged the system, including the boxers Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali and all those African American graffiti artists and taggers who have used the street and the lowly materials at their disposal to express themselves when self-expression was something one had to fight for. In many ways, it still is.
Pat Phillips, “Be Big and Strong Like John Henry (Eat Pickled Pigs Feet),” mixed media on wood panel, 2013
A similar sort of subterfuge and appropriation is used by Phillips in his painting “Be Big and Strong Like John Henry (Eat Pickled Pigs Feet).” In the painting, a depiction of Henry’s glistening, muscled arm and hand busts a can of pickled pigs feet (a soul food staple) open as a gaggle of hands grope for the feet before a background mimicking the American Flag, except the stars have been replaced by railroad spikes. Here, Phillips conflates John Henry with the cartoon character of Popeye with his steroidal can of spinach. It’s a sly appropriation of cultural power wrapped-up in a visually engaging and humorous depiction.
Pat Phillips, “Hello My Name Is (John Henry),” mixed media on wood panel, 2013
Another conceptually brilliant suite of paintings by Phillips are his diminutive “name tag” paintings – a series that concisely tells the audience what the story of John Henry is about by way of tagging Henry’s name on a depiction of a name tag.
Pat Phillips, “Chain Gang,” mixed media on wood panel, 2012
However, the humor and whimsy inherent in Phillips’ other pieces is nowhere to be found in his wall sculpture “Chain Gang,” which consists of two planks of wood painted in prison stripes, tagged with prison ID’s and chained together. It’s silent, post-minimalist power induces a pause and a shudder not unlike the sort of reaction one has standing before a grave – a shocker in an otherwise visually raucus exhibition. It offers a moment of quiet reflection about how far we’ve come, and how much farther we have to go as a society to truly be free. Afterall, slavery as a legal institution isn’t that far off in our collective rearview mirror. Its ramifications are still being felt in our culture, and chain gangs are still around. They didn’t go anywhere. Today, in many ways, slavery and forced-labor have just been either hidden from view or euphemistically tarted-up for the approval of the general public in America. Human trafficking victims (mostly females used for the purposes of prostitution), illegal aliens and guest workers toiling for pitiable wages, the teeming numbers of lower class citizens in this country who are stuck in dead-end, part time jobs that pay a sickening minimum wage or even less than that without the benefit of stable healthcare, all of the people around who are in debt up to their eyeballs due to “living beyond their means” when the deck was always stacked against them, the large numbers of African American males that get shuttled into the prison system and are forced to perform “free community service” due to their bad choices made in communities where there usually weren’t many other choices to begin with, and (lets not forget) the 3rd world sweatshop workers who make all the things we buy – all of these people are 21st century slaves in one form or another.
All that I’ve got to say at this point is: Oh Most Holy and Divine Aunt Jemima, roll-up your sleeves! We’ve still got work to do!
As another civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte, once sang, “Day O! Day-Ay-O-Oh! Daylight come an me wanna go home!”
Let’s get off this banana boat, y’all!
Johnathan “JJ” Wilson
“White Lotus Club”
White 2011 Windsor Wellington with custom paint
Courtesy Travis Aucoin
on view in the group exhibition “Revolution No.63″ at Parish Ink, 310 Jefferson Street, Lafayette, LA 70501
*** Author’s Note: If you would like to read the review of “Revolution No.63,” please see the previous post on this site titled “Free Wheelin’ It: ‘Revolution No. 63 at Parish Ink” here.
Installation shot of “Revolution No. 63”
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Grassroots activism and art go hand-in-hand. Jaques Louis David’s early paintings visually galvanized the ideals of the French Revolution. The coded negro spirituals of the Underground Railroad assisted slaves in escaping the confines of their masters during the heyday of the Antebellum South. The illustrated fliers and pamphlets from the Temperance Movement warned of the dangers of alcohol at the turn of the last century, ultimately assisting in the institution of Prohibition in the 1920’s. Picasso created the ultimate denouncement of the abject cruelty of fascism and war in his painting “Guernica”during the Spanish Civil War. The folk and protest songs of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960’s lead to widespread reforms that still reverberate through our society. The heady cocktail of subversive art and political discourse from the Situationist International lead to the General Strike of May 1968 in France. The feminist art of Judy Chicago and other notable female artists of the 1970’s was a clarion call for the women of the world to rightly take their place “at the table.” In short, the power of art has been harnessed to champion a multitude of human causes.
Today is no different. Art played a vital role in the Arab Spring Protests in the Middle East in the form of signage. The Occupy Movement currently sweeping the country has followed suit and made artistic signage a key element of their protests against the injustice and greed of the top 1% of this country and the world. Occupy organizers have even created arts committees to oversee the creation and distribution of art for the movement. They have also protested against art institutions which they feel have unfair practices and standards: most notably the megalithic auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, which cater to the top 1% while underpaying their art handlers. Museums have also not been immune to the protests of the Occupy Movement.
The origins of the Occupy Movement are even artistic in nature. The movement was birthed by the culture-jamming magazine “Adbusters” which aims at deconstructing and undermining the manipulative messages we receive from multinational corporations in artistic and provocative ways. Also, the movement has been peppered by the involvement of Anonymous, an organization spurred on my the politically charged, caped crusader film “V for Vendetta” to also seek justice in America.
On a smaller scale and certainly less incendiary but no less worthy, Lafayette has birthed a movement that is catching on like wildfire: Radical Biking. It’s a movement to open-up the city to the more environmentally friendly and free-form option of biking, rather than driving. In the past, Lafayette has been notoriously unaccommodating to bicyclists. This, however is changing. There is now a site on Facebook titled “BikeLafayette” which has drawn over 500 members so far. On the page, members can avail themselves of bike-centric conversation, up-coming events and biker’s rights. Critical Mass has also become a hallmark of the Biking Movement. Organizers rally bicycle riders at Parc Sans Souci in Downtown Lafayette for bimonthly trips across the city en masse, forcing motorists to hold off and take notice of them. Within these rides, moments for the exchange of information and advocacy take place. Art has entered the picture as well. Recently, after a biker was killed by a motorist on the main thoroughfare of Johnston St., Critical Mass installed a white bike sculpture called a “ghost bike” in memorial of their fallen comrade on wheels. Bike culture has become a big social experiment in Lafayette, spurring the addition of bike lanes and paths through parts of the city. The movement still has a long way to go, but it has had an intensively propulsive start thanks to a can-do spirit that has enlivened the city in many respects.
Going back to the subject of art, the movement has given the city another first: an group art exhibition devoted to biking. The exhibition is titled “Revolution No. 63.” Curators Lillian Aguinaga and Johnathan “JJ” Wilson incubated it in the Gallery at the Grant. However, due to some rather unfortunate business politics within Grant St. Dancehall, the art venue was closed (I, for one, was very saddened by the news), and Aguinaga and Wilson had to look for a new venue. In stepped the team of Jillian Johnson, Bram Johnson and Tom Brown. They were set to open a new locally owned and grown graphic apparel store called Parish Ink in Downtown Lafayette, and they offered Aguinaga and Wilson their storefront as a venue for the exhibition. Opening night coincided with Parish Inks’ grand opening on Artwalk night this November.
Before I go any further, I have to state that my wife and I are both participating artists in the exhibition. We exhibited anonymously: my wife did it because she enjoyed having an alter ego, and I participated anonymously as a function of the piece of art I made which I will explain later. We were asked to participate in the exhibition by Wilson, who is a co-worker of my wife’s and a personal friend of ours. I also have to say that I am my own worst critic, and I don’t hold my tongue when it comes to my friends’ exhibitions, either. Unfortunately, I’ve had to dish-out several negative reviews recently, all of which were either exhibitions that I was either connected to in some way or exhibitions put together by friends or co-workers. In the past, I’ve also given very positive reviews to artists I don’t particularly care for personally, basing the review solely on the caliber of their artistic achievement. I should also mention that my wife is a nascent but avid member of the Lafayette biking community. That being said …
“Revolution No. 63” was one of the highlights of this month’s Artwalk for me. It is a fantastic marriage of art, grassroots activism, philanthropy and commerce that I hadn’t seen before in Lafayette. The art, while being far from groundbreaking or earthshaking, is lovingly crafted, irreverent, and quite a lot of fun. Within the exhibition, viewers can peruse a variety of custom-built bikes and biking helmets, spoke cards, paintings, photographs, and prints by biking enthusiasts who are also artists. Rather than being sequestered in a particular section of Parish ink or simply hung on the walls as an after thought, the art has been displayed across the showroom, making it an integral part of this month’s Parish Ink experience.
In my opinion, the best art the exhibition has to offer are the photographs of Kevin Beasley’s from his “Out of Place” series. They are beautifully rendered, evocative and quirky images of lone bicyclists and their bikes in a swimming pool or a living room, respectively. These works grab your attention and don’t let go. The more I think about them, the more they dovetail with the ambition of the city’s biking movement to reach every part of the city. It may be incidental, but they are arresting tributes to that ambition. Also high on my list was the work of Pat Phillips who offered some works that didn’t necessarily address biking culture but street culture in general. His graffiti-inspired canvas “NOMAD” is a knockout image of a boombox, implying the importance of transportability and music in contemporary street culture. This was coincidentally amplified by the presence of a DJ at the opening. Two smaller works by Phillips, “Homework 1” and “Home Work 2,” join “NOMAD” in the show. Phillips has affixed old homework to wood panels and graffitied over them, creating some insanely doodleriffic pieces of art. These things are sly and incredibly witty. They also include the written steps that Phillips used to create the graffiti that covers his homework. It’s street education versus higher education, and in this instance, the street wins.
Alyce LaBry and Landon Bell both offer some simple yet elegant prints of bikes that I enjoyed. Stu Babin contributed a bizarre poster advertising the “Swamp Thing Alley Cat Race 2011.” In this graphically hilarious piece, a bike punk rides past the famous comic and movie character, Swamp Thing. It ain’t exactly high art: it’s an advertisement. However, it’s extremely well done, great to look at, and it captures the spirit of the biking movement in the city.
If any of you don’t know this already, spoke cards are laminated pieces of art on paper that are attached to bicycle spokes for decoration. One of the best things about “Revolution No. 63” is its spoke card display which contains 31 separate cards that run the gambit in terms of style. Tyler Broussard’s hippie/tie died inspired card, Johnathan “JJ” Wilson’s CMYK inspired card, Mr Christopher’s “F@$% Cars ” card, Matthew Hernandez’s card fusing the Acadian flag, a pelican and a bike wheel, Travis Aucoin’s card displaying an image of a hipstertastic deer head with mustache and handlebars for antlers, and Ashley Austin’s card showing a woman on a bike about to launch a bazooka at some Hummers are really worthy inclusions. The really great thing about the spoke cards is that for the first week of the exhibition, all proceeds from the cards went to a local bicycle advocacy organization. This exhibition definitely has heart, and advocacy is central to it’s message.
Some pretty sweet rides are on display. The shop Recycled Cycles is presenting two vintage overhauls with modifications. Johnathan “JJ” Wilson painted an intricate, black and white graffiti pattern across Zach Knight’s bike titled “The White Lotus Club.” For all of you geeks out there, there’s a gray Nintendo bike with a controller mod titled “Liberate This Generation.” There’s also a pin-up inspired ride by Anthony Bonamolo for the all the Playboys and Playgirls. Unfortunately, some of these bikes are hanging vertically from the rafters of the store. This makes for some neck craning and difficult viewing, especially when it comes to the intricate details on some of these bikes. The show gets a ding from me when it comes to this. I can’t help but think that there could have been a better solution.
Last but certainly not least, the helmets make up a pretty lively section of the show. All of them are pretty slapdash affairs. Jessalyn Newton and Mike Bourque’s “Horny Japan” is an homage to Japanese monster movies, a’ la “Godzilla:” their helmet has a row of “horns” running down the middle of it. Bourque takes a solo turn with an interesting green, grinning monster painted on a helmet. Monica Zabicki painted gears all over her helmet, and Matthew Guidry transformed his helmet into a “Starwars” imperial storm trooper mask.
Now, I have to give my wife and I some light props for getting freaky-deaky, if nothing else. My wife is going under the pseudonym “Yerba the Yenta” for the show. Her piece is a satirical play on her Jewish roots (although her family hasn’t practiced since possibly the turn of the last century). It’s a crocheted helmet complete with a yarmulke, side burn curls, an evil eye and … some knock off versions of Disney’s princess dolls stripped down to loins cloths and sewed on the back of the helmet! The piece is called “Challa Back , B@$%&s!” A pun on the ubiquitous cat call and the Jewish staple food, challa bread. All I have to say is that when she first showed it to me complete, my jaw dropped and I couldn’t stop laughing. Based on that reaction, I’d call it art, and I’d say my wife has issues (love you, Bubbie). My helmet was a hastily created piece with a false start. At first I didn’t know what the hell to do, and I procrastinated because of it. It all came together a couple of days past the deadline for the show (really sorry JJ and Lillian, but I was crazy busy). I came up with this fictitious story about the Critical Mass riders being an urban tribe who perform a ritual called the Secret Sky-wheelie, in which participants spiritually connect to the pavement and the sky. During the ritual, they must wear a ceremonial helmet with bizarre tribal patterns and feathers. Some participants die trying to perform the ritual. If this happens, their departed souls and psychic energies get sucked into the helmet. So the “Ceremonial Helmet for the Secret Sky-wheelie Ritual” was born. I withheld my name so that it would seem more like an anthropological artifact that went along with the story. It’s not the greatest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m proud of it nonetheless – mostly for the story that goes along with it.
So, all in all, I have to say that “Revolution No. 63” is one of the most spirited and enjoyable exhibitions I’ve seen in Lafayette. It’s good, it’s got heart and soul, and it’s for a great cause. What also was amazing to me was the way the art meshed with the store itself. It’s typically a taboo for someone like myself, a fine artist and critic to discuss art and the “lowly” subject of commerce. However, in this case, I’m throwing that taboo out the window. The people at Parish Ink deserve a special thanks not only for donating their venue for the show, but doing special work and thinking locally. The graphics on their apparel express a uniquely witty, smart and regional flair that complement the artwork very well. It is a great marriage. I, for one, am leaving this exhibition feeling satisfied that artistically, financially, and ethically we all achieved something special.