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:
1. Despite the ongoing scholarly debate concerning definitions and contexts of the term Creole/creole, a French variant of the term derived from the Spanish criolla or Portuguese crioulo, signifying a cultural product native to a particular region subject to European intrusion, often fusing elements of the colonial European culture with "native" practices, whether cultural, linguistic, or religious, it is posited for the purposes of the present discussion that creolization constitutes any cultural production that synthesizes information, formal elements, or intellectual content from disparate cultural sources. Twiggs's use of the batik technique, frequently employed in traditional African cultures for utilitarian purposes, decorating fabrics intended to be worn, thereby affiliates him with this technique's craft associations; juxtapositioned with his subsequent recontextualization of this method within Euro-centrist constructs of expressive, non-functional fine-art forms, it establishes an initial creolization, or mixing of traditions, which constitutes an important aspect of his innovation of both traditions in craft and fine art. In addition, his academic training combined with the elements of African American folk culture incorporated within his works substantiates a further basis for considering the propensities for combining disparate cultural traditions in his artistic works a creolization process.
2. The interpretive complexity of Twiggs's works easily lends itself to the culturally relativistic approach to interpretations of social phenomena as posited by anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Twiggs's images incorporate a personal visual language based on his own intrinsic aesthetic values, forged from the association of traditional American culture and Twiggs's resurgent pride in investigating his African ancestry through his work. For more information on the methodologies of the culturally relativist approach, see Melville Herskovits, Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism (New York: Random House, 1972). The eventual acceptance of many tenets of cultural relativism by the post-Civil Rights culture that evolved in America led to substantive cultural metamorphoses, which indirectly fueled the transformation of Twiggs and other American artists who may be construed as working outside the conventions of the canons of Modernism/Post-modernism in devising the evolution of a symbolic language for their works. The aesthetic democratization, which led to the acceptance of craft-associated techniques (such as batik) as appropriate for expression in the fine arts, may arguably be discussed as having its foundation in the assertions regarding the problems of aesthetics offered by writers such as Roland Barthes and, later, Luc Ferry and other philosophers in aesthetics who made it acceptable for the Post-modern Western canon to accommodate non-Western syntheses as valid fine-art expression. For more on this evolution see Luc Ferry, Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age, trans. Robert de Loaiza (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 1993.
3. See Elton Fax, Black Artists of the New Generation (New York, Dodd, Mead & Co. 1977), 325-44, for references to the significance of Arthur Rose (1921-1997) as a role model and mentor for Twiggs while still a student at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Fax relates Rose's role in exposing Twiggs to a national art context, especially via the establishment of the National Conference of Artists, or NCA, of which Rose was founding charter member and organizer. An example of Twiggs's innovations in his works beginning after the year 2000 is his installation entitled For Lovers Only (2001), which is not included in the present catalogue or exhibition; however, this work, which is intended to symbolize the evolution of a love affair/relationship, incorporated small batik paintings on silk placed in wine glasses, creating the illusion of a series of wine-filled glasses, suggesting different phases or stages of love, and culminating with an empty glass, symbolizing loss.
4. The term "Jim Crow," used in common parlance to designate legalized segregation by race, is of obscure origin, but it is generally linked to a minstrel character, thought to be based on a caricature of an elderly African American male, made famous by the imitation of his dancing antics by performer Thomas D. Rice in the mid-nineteenth century. The minstrel stage perfected the use of several standard African American stereotypical caricatures, including "Black Sambo," a lazy and intractable buffoon, frequently associated with the eating of a watermelon; "Mammy" and "Uncle Tom," the faithful retainers; "Topsy"; or a carefree and careless "Pickaninny," with numerous short braids; "Zip Coon," a character intended specifically to degrade African American intellectual contributions, and other standards (i.e., "The Nigger in the Woodpile," a euphemism for the black rapist character; the "Tragic Mulatto," for the alienation of persons of mixed racial ancestry; etc.) These icons intentionally were incorporated into American popular culture as means of socio-cultural control intended to undermine the serious consideration of contributions to the complex matrix of American culture made by Americans of African descent, thereby excusing social inequities directed against African Americans as a group. Each of these standard characters had certain specific associations. An interesting treatment of this phenomenon has been presented by the late filmmaker, Marlon Riggs, in his work Ethnic Notions (San Francisco: California Newsreel Films, 1987), narrated by Esther Rolle, which documents the iconographic significance of the watermelon used as an attribute, with regard to its associations with the dissemination of images of African Americans, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For more information on the origin of the term "Jim Crow," see The Encyclopedia of Black America, W. Augustus Lowe and Virgil Clift, ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981), 471. The association of the watermelon (a member of the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, genus and specie Citrullus vulgaris) with stereotypical depictions of blacks probably descends from the origin of this hardy, vine plant on the African continent and from the association of its sweet, fleshy fruit with surviving the voyages of the Middle Passage.
5. The stylistic character of Twiggs's Watermelons shows a treatment of brushwork and the architectonic compositional approach codified by Paul Cézanne, whose late nineteenth-century retrospective inspired Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in particular to devise a new way of describing visually the material world via development of the constructs of a Cubist vision of represented phenomena.
6. Fax, Black Artists, 338-39, discusses Twiggs's study as a graduate student at New York University under the tuteledge of Hale Aspacio Woodruff (1900-1980), an artist of the Harlem Renaissance who achieved an international reputation as a muralist and figurative artist, and later as an Abstract Expressionist of eloquence and power. The exhibition catalogue produced by Mary Schmidt-Campbell, Winifred Stoelting, Gylbert Coker, and Albert Murray, Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art (New York: The Studio Museum, 1979), is an insightful overview of this distinguished career.
7. Twiggs often works in series, developing an idea through various phases of transformation, implying the evolution of culture and experience, the organic nature of society and concepts of growth and change. He alludes to change directly and indirectly as in the various representations of the torn, folded image of the Naval Jack of the Confederacy referenced in his Commemorations series. This image recalls Southern pride, slavery, and dissonance in a single image. The artist has stated in video interviews that the faded character of the batik medium is an intentional reference to genteel, respectable poverty. The colorful and picturesque images created by Twiggs often hold suggestions of political commentary which may not be immediately obvious. The series commemorating Hurricane Hugo, a disaster which struck the southeastern region with particular force in 1989, is a homage to a community still struggling with residual cultural vestiges of legalized segregation, but which could pull together in the face of a natural disaster that obliterated considerations of race, class, or gender.
8. I have discussed this work elsewhere in Conflict and Transcendence: African-American Art in South Carolina, ed. Un Nelson-Mayson and Joy Pierce-Johnson (Columbia, South Carolina: The Columbia Museum of Art, 1992); for the discussion of Twiggs's image, reference pp. 32-33. The biblical passages that inspire both the image proper and the Negro Spiritual, "Ezekiel Saw de Wheel, Way Up in de Middle of de Air," to which this image refers, derive from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 10: 1-22, which describe the vision of the cherubim with flaming wheels who intercede in the earthly realm as extensions of the power of the deity. This particular chapter may have a special significance for Twiggs, an American of African descent raised in the South, for its references to the workings of divine providence in the material world, the beacon of hope for a culture emerging, even in 1992, from the constraints of Jim Crow oppressiveness.
9. The permutations of the ensign and canton of the Confederacy create a fascinating tale in and of itself; see Greg Biggs, "Usage," Naval Flags of the Confederacy, July 7, 2001, http://www.fotw.net/flags/us-csan.html#use. The icon most frequently invoked as the Southern emblem is the rectangular Naval Jack of the Confederacy (designed in 1863) that has come to symbolize to many the reinvigoration of Southern pride of place, states' rights, self-determination, and local political power. Less desirable but equally powerful associations include white supremacy, bigotry, racism, support of the Ku Klux Klan, enslavement of persons of African descent in America, and Neo-Nazism. In South Carolina, this symbol is particularly resonant because of the longstanding use of the Naval Jack as an official governmental emblem flying above the South Carolina State Capitol Building from 1961, when it was placed as a commemorative device acknowledging the initiation of the War Between the States and the shots fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. In 2000, the symbol was moved to the grounds of the State Capitol and appended to the Monument to the Confederate Dead. On occasion, the square precedent ensign of the Army of Northern Virginia (in use from 1861 through 1865), which inspired the formal arrangement of the later Naval Jack, has been substituted at the South Carolina Capitol. However, the official emblem of the Confederate States of America was the red, white, and blue Stars 'n Bars, a rectangular ensign with one white, two red stripes, and a blue field with thirteen stars in a circle symbolizing the confederate member states. Twiggs's employment of this symbol, politicized in this context by the simple fact of his African ancestry and reference to the displacement of his ancestors through the agency of institutionalized slavery in the service of the political construct of the Confederate States of America suggests consideration of controversial and critical social issues of entitlement, citizenship, and community.
10. For further consideration of the Hughes/Twiggs correspondence, see Frank Martin, Visions of Color: An Exhibition in Celebration of the Penn Center of the Sea Islands by Artists of Color of South Carolina (Orangeburg: I. P. Stanback Museum, South Carolina State University, 1993), 27-29, n. 10-11; and Frank Martin, "Leo Twiggs," The St. James Guide to Black Artists, ed. Thomas Riggs (Detroit: St. James Press, 1997), 534-36, for a discussion of the metaphor of the river as a cradle of civilization in Twiggs's works based on correspondences with the Hughes poem. This idea has also been presented in Frank Martin, "Diaspora: Tradition & Innovation in African-American Art; The Transformation of Image and Culture," Triennial '98, ed. Polly Lafitte and Harriett Green (Columbia: South Carolina Arts Commission and the South Carolina State Museum, 1998), 73-78.
11. Regarding the significance of indigo (Leguminosae indigofera), a member of the pea family native to India, Africa, and America, as an economic staple crop in South Carolina specifically, with inferences for its significance for the dislocation of Africans to America as enslaved laborers, see Walter Edgar, South Carolina, A History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 143-51. Indigo is first seriously considered as a cash crop in the 1740s, and by 1775, a million pounds of the blue or purple dye were being exported from South Carolina, although frequently the Carolina-produced dye was of poor quality, possibly due to shortcuts used in its processing.
About the author
Mr. Frank C. Martin is Interim Director of the I.P. Stanback Museum, South Carolina State University, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Orangeburg, SC. He is the author of:
Go to page: 1 / 2 / 3 / Notes
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Georgia Museum of Art in Resource Library.
Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.
Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.