Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
here is within the human heart, I believe, a quality of intelligence that has been known to surpass that attributed to the human mind. The idea is one Muhammad Ali might have appreciated because in director Clare Lewins’ ten-star film documentary, I Am Ali, the fighter shares these words: “Man judges man’s actions. God judges man’s heart.”
When tapped and cultivated, or made a naturally dominant trait of an individual’s personality, the heart’s intelligence radiates a wise benevolence capable of assuming different powerful forms.
As fellow heavyweight champion and Christian minister George Foreman testified:
“Sometimes people come to me and say, ‘What do you think? Was Muhammad Ali the world’s greatest boxer?’ And I feel almost insulted because boxing was just something he did. I mean that’s no way to define Muhammad Ali. He was one of the greatest men to ever appear on the scene of the earth” (from I Am Ali, 2014).
When the radiance of the heart emanated through the person of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) he could easily, at different times, be defined in one of at least 10 different ways:
Of Saints and Athletes
On the iconic and controversial April 1968 cover of Esquire Magazine, the devout Muslim Ali duplicated the famous image of the Christian Saint Sebastian. Shot through with arrows for converting people to Christianity while enlisted as a Roman soldier, Sebastian (c. 256–c. 288 AD) was reportedly left for dead but miraculously recovered and confronted his would-be executioner. He was then then bludgeoned to death and in time adopted as a spiritual protector to call upon during plagues, and as a patron saint of warriors, individuals desiring a saintly death, and athletes.
As in the classic portraits of the martyred Saint Sebastian, the image of Muhammad Ali on the cover of Esquire shows him shot through with six bloody arrows. During the photo shoot, Ali identified the arrows as symbols of political figures whom he felt had positioned themselves to be his his “tormentors”: U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), Vietnam War Commanding Army General William Westmoreland (1941-2005), U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009), U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909-1994), political consultant Clark Clifford (1906-1998), and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978).
The specific names given the arrows could just as easily (or almost anyway) have been exchanged for the various social injustices which the garrulous gadfly witnessed and protested against: relentless racism, poverty, corporate colonialism, unnecessary war, class discrimination, and unequal education. The names could also have been switched out for any number of others who felt more threatened than charmed by the great man’s uncanny charisma.
A Curative Force of Genuine Love
It takes an oversized personality like his to absorb and survive the kind of social and political poisons designed precisely to destroy men such as Muhammad Ali.
It takes the most exceptional of hearts occupied by the rarest of souls to transform those toxins into a curative force of genuine love, one capable of healing and empowering multitudes just by being its beautiful shining courageous self.
5 June 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.