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!