Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted October 12, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. The essay is contained in the fully illustrated exhibition catalogue Myths and Metaphors: The Art of Leo Twiggs, ISBN 0-915977-52-4, which was published in connection with an exhibit of the same name held at the Georgia Museum of Art January 30, 2004 - March 28, 2004. We express appreciation to Bonnie Ramsey of the Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

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The appropriation of the Naval Jack of the Confederacy in images from the Commemorations series is a powerful political statement regarding the American condition that consistently recurs in Twiggs's repertoire of metaphorical imagery. Through his employment of this symbol, the artist acknowledges the role of the American of African descent in contributing to the economic stability of our nation and in defining its cultural character, and especially in shaping the character of the Confederacy. The emotional and political messages that this still powerful symbol represents may yet be interpreted divisively, even in the Post-modern, contemporary South. Twiggs, however, presents his solution to the polemical dialogue of "hatred" versus "heritage" via his acceptance of the reality of African American contributions to the problematic history of the region and the interactions between the culture and traditions of the South with the rest of America, ultimately culminating in two significant conflicts: the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The tangible aftermath of both events and their impact on constructs of "Rights;""Race," and "Identity" (regional and/or national) resound still around the globe.

In works such as the varied images from the Commemorations series, the visual manifestations of Twiggs's approach to his subjects frequently subvert his intellectuality and our awareness of his philosophical control, which are often disguised as "folksy" and almost "down home." This approach is, without question, fully intentional. The aesthetic effects in a Twiggs work are clearly the consequence of careful calculation and control despite the compelling appearance of spontaneity and freedom the works may suggest. His repertoire of imagery is, in effect, the result of a process that is conceptually complex and culturally manipulative. By creating an artful romance of memory and earthiness, his ideas are then translated through a sophisticated palette of color and sifted through the veil of his academic training in all its subtlety.

This intricacy of conception is always evident; however, the artist has embraced the Southern conventions of good manners and taste as well as the common sense not to intrude overtly his multivalent awareness upon the attention of his public. Thus, the romance created is not in the least simplistic or naive, yet retains an appearance of innocence, which upon investigation, simply cannot be as "true" as a cursory assessment might mislead us to believe. We know that the egg-headed children who populate his dreamscapes are not merely accidental but are fully intended to be construed as aliens in their own homeland, that is, as conceived, fetal humanity developing within a matrix of social complexity in which they must struggle to find a role. The viewer may choose the path of avoidance and safety with regard to the interpretive convolution and complexity of the social issues implied, but the richer meanings are always present, looming or lurking within the obvious, waiting to be recognized and dislodged to wreak innovative disruption in a field of energized color and varied form.

Penchant for a poignant intellectuality is also clear in those works suffused by references to literature, such as allusions to Langston Hughes's poetic work' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," invoked in Twiggs evocative series, .... We Have Known Rivers. In these works, the spectator may often find assemblaged recombinations of mask-like figures, allusions to the masks of long-forgotten ancestors, lost to the middle passage or left in the African homeland, apparitions who linger above (or below) a landscape that evokes the beauty of Twiggs's native South Carolina low country. The crescent moon and reflected tree in this version of the Rivers image (Figure 3) Cat. no. 23) serve to heighten the sense of mystery and magic that permeates this scene, enhancing the implied themes of fecundity, posterity, and antiquity established by Hughes in his poem and envisioned here, by Twiggs, with an eloquence fully equal to the richness of the poet's timeless imagery. [10]

This poetic sensibility in Twiggs's works extends even into the employment of popular culture phenomena in images encoded with musical metaphors, such as in the composite assemblage group, Birth of the Blues (1996-2003, Cat. nos. 25- 28). Allusions to popular cultural phenomena form another means by which this insightful artist maintains his incisive commentary on the public pulse. The blues, an authentic American musical expression with deep African roots, is also a part of the legacy of enslavement and suffering. However, this musical heritage has become, through its dissemination into diverse cultures, representative of human suffering in any global context. Inclusion of mystical, reliquary-like receptacles in this series of works with the addition of compartments or boxes is perhaps intended to symbolize the containment of experience or to personify memory crystallized into objects, and thereby transformed into tangible metaphors for the idea of time's passage. Simultaneously, they reconcile differing religious traditions (e.g., the incorporation of elements common to indigenous African cultures, such as the reliquaries of the Fang people of Gabon compared and contrasted, for example, possibly here, with the reliquaries of the Catholic/Christian tradition). Twiggs offers or suggests traditional African religion and its vestigial manifestations in America: Voodoo, "root work" and "mojo:" still prevalent in the contemporary Carolina low country, mediated through encounters with Euro-centrist, Western, Christian traditions. The thoughtful compositional arrangements, harmonies of color and form, and infallible sense of occult balance are unassuming but omnipresent. This art incorporates the characteristics of the traditional African trickster, and is reflexively clever in its self-awareness. It knows when to be bold and when to be quiet; it knows when to allude to the past and when to look toward the future; and it inherently knows when simply to pull the viewer into its eloquent reality, offering no solutions, merely articulating with passion an aspect of the human condition. Twiggs's use of variations of indigo blue refers, albeit elliptically, to the cultural significance of the indigo plant itself, a crucial crop for the burgeoning economy of South Carolina and early America, which provided the rationale for the displacement of many West African peoples, who were transplanted to American shores to facilitate its cultivation. [11] Thus, we may interpret an incisive visual and verbal interplay of concepts, having a multiplicity of levels referring to the "blues" metaphor, which are simultaneously operant: the popular musical form of the "blues;" the "blue" (and purple) dye of the indigo plant, an early cash crop in the South, and the sadness or "blues" of forced servitude and slavery, as well as the eventualities engendered by invoking the idea of this particular injustice. This work is elegant, coolly intellectual, aesthetically pleasing, full of intrigue, and quite typical of Twiggs's interwoven conceptual constructs.

Thus, in the art of Leo Twiggs, formal and material manifestations of his ideas point to constructs of evolution, transformation, and growth, using the metaphor of the series, a repeated treatment of a common theme highlighting different aspects of a signal event, idea, or motif. Twiggs's metaphorical, visual, synthetic language contains elements of fine-art tradition, personal symbolism, popular cultural motifs, historical information, and political polemics compressed into a vitally expressive conglomerate of experience. In later works, Twiggs's explorations move beyond the territory of two-dimensional image-making, extending into assemblage and installation, always remaining faithful to the integrity of the batik medium, which serves as a unifying thematic pulse. Themes of appropriation, politics, and power are intricately interwoven into the very fabric of his images with consummate subtlety. He comfortably inhabits the position of the artist as a thoughtful critic of society and of commentator on its social ills and joys, a position he simultaneously reconciles with the concept of the artist as celebrant of life, purveyor of hope, and conveyor of culture. The reconciled history that Twiggs presents, cloaked within the enveloping translation of his personal experiences into art objects, is not merely our shared history in the South, or even our American history, but a vital metaphor for the history of all humanity, and with a provocative philosophic symmetry, includes important allusions to our continued inhumanity, one against another. Yet, Twiggs always offers the clear beacon of hope that we may be capable of a future in which we are better; where shared humane concerns will triumph; and in which the curious fetal populace of his dream of Utopia may have the possibility of devising, at some future juncture, a desirable reality. Twiggs's works clarify for his audience the idea that transcendent meaning stems from our ability to find the resources to sustain our faith in the communicative power mediated through our responses to and understanding of the individual messages encoded in cultural and artistic forms of expression which emerge from our common humanity.

Frank Martin

 

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