Reflect on the legacy of Juneteenth through our permanent collection.
By Hannah Amuka, Coordinator of Gallery Experiences, High Museum of Art
In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring more than three million enslaved persons living in the Confederate states to be free. More than two years passed before the news made its way across the American South to African Americans living in Galveston, Texas. On June 19, 1865, Texas residents finally learned that slavery had been abolished, and every year after, the newly freed recognized that day with prayer, food, song, and dance.
On this Juneteenth, we commemorate the achievements of Black culture. Through these objects in our collection, we will explore the resiliency and legacy of Black artists from the 1800s through today.
Seven years before Emancipation Day, in 1858, David Drake, an enslaved potter living and working in the Edgefield District of South Carolina, produced this remarkable alkaline-glazed stoneware vessel jar. His pottery, often inscribed with original poems and riddles, served as a sort of diary, offering a unique voice to the narratives that dominated literature and art of the enslaved from this period. During the 1800s when federal laws permitted punishment for literacy among the enslaved, Drake’s signed work and rhyming couplets invoked a sense of radical ownership. On this pot, he inscribed: “I made this for our sott / it will never-never, rott.” His words are archives of creative power that secure his legacy and center questions of ownership among the former enslaved. The monumentality of the jar is an opportunity to recognize its utilitarian function along with its maker’s undeniable technical skills.
The properties of African art, anchored with chance and improvisation, are assimilated through the fabric of this untitled strip quilt by an unidentified Mississippi artist. Enslaved Africans brought specialized knowledge of indigo processing, as well as beliefs about the hues it produced. In this quilt, the indigo stripes break sections of black panels; the lime green tie stitches woven through the quilt’s three layers function as a structural element and a visual effect that is suggestive of language. The presence of the art form reveals a type of material communication across cultures that survives through ingenuity.
Barbershop Stand and Shelf was made in the 1950s and serves as a representation of the integral role barbershops have played in the cultural production and progression of Black communities. The stand and its freestanding shelf are constructed from reused pieces of old furniture. The artist added many bands of v-notched wood and finished the set with shades of red, blue, yellow, and black paint. This piece functions as both utility and art, while its altar-like quality pays respect to the legacy of Black ownership in the service economy. Ultimately, the spaces of community created through barbering helped to ensure the survival of African Americans in their new sociopolitical and economic conditions.
Using a discarded church door as his canvas, Herbert Singleton depicts scenes from a New Orleans jazz funeral. The top rail is lined with mourners, who are surrounded by lyrics. The door panels present the death rites, while musicians parade up the center stile. Line dancers prance along the edges carrying umbrellas, a distinguishing feature of jazz funerals in New Orleans and some African communities. The object serves as a commemoration of shared community and history, both in its medium and cultural depictions.
Raised in Harlem during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Norman Lewis created Untitled (Barker and Crowd) to serve as a nonfigurative representation of community and, more specifically, organizing and activism. Through a flurry of brush strokes, Lewis’s command of color and line evokes a series of silhouetted figures that gather before a fiery glow. Their energy perhaps refers to the burning rhetoric of the stump speakers, or “barkers,” who incited street crowds to take action during events of the civil rights movement. Lewis employed the visual language of abstraction to depict the joy, pain, and power of the Black experience.
We are taken through a service of remembrance with Radcliffe Bailey’s EW, SN. The title refers to the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970 when more than six million African Americans migrated from east to west and from south to north to pursue economic opportunity in industrial urban centers during the rise of Jim Crow and segregation. EW, SN reveals Bailey’s signature layering of imagery with historically evocative and culturally resonant images such as railroad tracks, which evoke the history of the Underground Railroad while referring to the career of Bailey’s father as a railroad engineer. Unconventional materials such as velvet and glitter suggest the spectral realm of memory and the imagination as well as the infinite depth of space. By combining these themes and materials into one large work, Bailey evokes a sense of cultural history shaped by both the pain and promise of the Black American experience.