Juneteenth is on the consciousness of more Americans than ever before. Like the vast majority of white Americans, I didn’t really know much about Juneteenth (or New Year’s Eve Watch Night observances) beyond the fact that they celebrate the end of slavery in America. The reality was much more complicated, as first the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed slaves in states that had seceded (which was only made effective in Texas with the arrival of Union troops in Galveston Island on June 19, 1865), and then the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in all U.S. states and territories when it was ratified on December 6, 1865.
The present-day stark disparities in health, employment, and wealth between Black and white Americans remind us that slavery may have ended, but racial discrimination, violence, and injustice remain deeply and insidiously rooted in contemporary society. Musical artist Usher wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday would be a small gesture compared with the greater social needs of black people in America. But it can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.”
While reading and reflecting this week on Juneteenth, a work of art by the late Frederick J. Brown (1945–2012) in the MOCRA collection kept coming to mind. Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical, and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In 1991 he told Eve M. Ferguson, “I think my heritage has a great significance to the images I produce, but you can limit people with a name or a title to only serve one group. When you see my work, you can tell it is done by someone who is Black. But, I want to provide as many beautiful things to the world as I possibly can.” (“Art Sings the Blues,” The Washington Afro-American, October 26, 1991)
In 1992, Brown offered to execute a large, multi-paneled altarpiece for the soon-to-open MOCRA. The resulting Life of Christ Altarpiece was completed in 1995 and is comprised of a central triptych (Baptism, Descent from the Cross, and Resurrection) and two side panels (Madonna and Child and Descent into Hell, which in the original the were placed at a 90° angle to the triptych). Through strong brushwork and brilliant coloration, Brown created a moving visual theological reflection on the life of Christ.
The work that has been on my mind is the final panel, Brown’s reflection on a subject rarely seen in modern western art—the Descent into Hell. Traditional depictions of this episode (more often seen in the art of the Eastern Churches) typically show the risen Christ astride the gates of the netherworld, now dashed asunder, as he draws the souls of Adam and Eve and matriarchs and patriarchs from death’s clutches.
Brown’s version is distinguished by a return to the style of Abstract Expressionism that he used in the 1970s, the style which won the attention of the artist Willem de Kooning, who became an important mentor and friend for Brown.
The title of Brown’s version suggests we are in a moment before Christ’s triumph. There is no clear sense of scale, and the removal of figural elements heightens the sense of vast, even limitless despair. This is a descent into a hell with personal resonances, a deeply felt understanding of what it is to look into the abyss and be overwhelmed by the various struggles of life. (Brown intimated that this panel resulted from a dark moment in his own life.)
And yet there is such energy in this work! If it is a descent, it is the descent of the Tunguska meteorite smashing into the earth with a force that could level a city (or indeed, crack the gates of hell). But to me it also looks like an eruption, the energy of life unleashed and spirits triumphantly ascending. Death and life, despair and hope, held together in a single, infinite moment.
Now this energy speaks to me of the forces unleashed following the heartless killing of George Floyd. The pain, cruelty, and lack of human compassion compressed into eight minutes and forty-six seconds exploded, propelling protests and demonstrations—and darker moments of violence and looting. It is an unbridled energy, like the jets of paint that intertwine and race past each other on the canvas, with a momentum that has yet to expend itself (and, I hope, will not flag until substantial transformations of society are achieved).
If we let our focus shift behind the bright skeins and spumes, we begin to notice deep purples, blue-blacks, blacks tinged with yellow—the colors of bruising, of throbbing and tenderness, the evidence of trauma. Saturating the canvas, this background is both illumined by and indelibly linked to the energy of the foreground: Not unlike the deep pain of generations of unjust, accumulated and accustomed, but insufficiently acknowledged.
We might also notice the raw canvas at the upper corners and along the left side. These areas have caught some overspray, but they are largely blank, fresh pages offering the possibility of writing a different story.
One of the perks of working in an art museum is the opportunity to see works from perspectives not visible to the general public. In the case of Descent into Hell, seeing the reverse of the work is discovering another work of art.
I usually get the impression of an image from the Hubble Telescope of unbridled cosmic energies swept along in currents or gathering in whorls and eddies. But today I’m also seeing a roiling vortex sucking us down deep into cold waters, away from the light beckoning at the surface. And my imagination takes me to the horrors of the Middle Passage, to the dead and half-dead tossed overboard and consigned to oblivion.
As noted above, when first displayed, the Mother and Child panel faced the Descent into Hell.
The hallmark piece of the work, Madonna and Child has an iconic and a monumental feel. Brown builds on the long tradition of this subject, but makes it clearly a work of the late twentieth century. Read in the context of Descent into Hell, the vaguely melancholy child Christ seems to sense his destiny. But the Madonna towers over us, her face bearing the influences of African, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Oceanic art. At first she seems severe, but then we notice that her closed eyelids are pronounced and glistening, as if she is tearing up in anticipation of her son’s trials to come.
Today, this interaction of mother and son reminds me of “the talk” that Black parents must have with their sons. As explained by filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir and Blair Foster:
For generations, parents of black boys across the United States have rehearsed, dreaded and postponed “The Conversation.” But when their boys become teenagers, parents must choose whether or not to expose their sons to what it means to be a black man here. To keep him safe, they may have to tell the child they love that he risks being targeted by the police, simply because of the color of his skin. How should parents impart this information, while maintaining their child’s pride and sense of self? How does one teach a child to face dangerous racism and ask him to emerge unscathed?
This Op-Doc video is our attempt to explore this quandary, by listening to a variety of parents and the different ways they handle these sensitive discussions. In bringing about more public awareness that these conversations exist, we hope that someday they won’t be necessary.
Out of the nearly three-hundred graduating seniors in my 1990 Jesuit high school class, three were Black. I’ve been thinking about Melvin and Charles and Kevin, about how limited my conversations with them were and how little I knew about their lives—about my own obliviousness. And yet, in the fragments of conversation I can recall, I glimpse the multiple worlds they were inhabiting, the outsize burdens they were carrying. I can guess now at “the talks” they received from their parents and elders.
The title of this post comes from the Audre Lorde poem “Afterimages,” a searing meditation on the murder of Emmett Till and its impact on Lorde’s psyche: “His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year / when I walked through a northern summer / my eyes averted / from each corner’s photographies . . . ”
I think about my young niece and wonder what afterimages of this summer she will carry with her into adulthood. She has seen boarded up businesses in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood, but also the many messages and artworks that adorn them. She has walked by her father’s side at a peaceful demonstration alongside people of many races and all ages. She gives me great hope.
Descent into Hell reminds me also of that crescendo in grand fireworks displays when rocket trails on rocket, a riotous cacophony accompanying coruscating light. The afterimages persist well after the sparks wink out. This seems like a fitting metaphor on this Juneteenth of 2020. Today’s celebrations remind us that, even as we confront painful memories and mourn significant loss, we can harness our creative energies to live our way into a better future. As the juxtapositions of Frederick Brown’s Life of Christ Altarpiece suggest, sometimes that may require a powerful eruption that remakes the world; at other times we need a moment of quiet embrace and contemplation.