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
Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections and renewed hopes (part 1 of 2): remembrance
"He used the word 'nourishing' to refer to Vann's work. And the more I looked through the work seriously, and took my time, that term [seemed] quite apropos. The art and poetry of Elemental nourishes the soul, the mind, and the aesthetic."
Every now and then I get a good sense of what it might feel like to be a phoenix waking up as a pile of ash and bones which suddenly burst into new flaming life. It was kind of like that recently while continuing my ongoing recovery from the hurricanes of 2016 (Matthew) and 2017 (Irma) to prepare for the 2018 stormy-weather season.
In the course of going through yet another pile of unsorted thumb drives, DVDs, CDs, and mini cassettes, I discovered a lost treasure: a DVD filmed by the gifted polymath Benjamin Bacon (known to friends and colleagues as BeBe) labeled "Elemental, Early Morning Light Productions, by Luther E. Vann, Final Cut, Jepson Gallery, Savannah, GA, May 29, 2008." It is not something which will ever challenge the global impact of director Ryan Coogler's game-changing Black Panther film, but it has added immeasurably to the 2018 10th Anniversary Celebration of the publication of Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love (ISBN 9780972114271).
The video, shot just as YouTube and social media were developing their considerable digital muscles, captures in raw fashion a singular moment in the history of cultural arts in the United States. The program that evening included my friend Luther's debut effort as a videographer, a short bio-documentary titled Coming Home, in which he recorded me reciting the poem from which the video took its title, and chronicled his days in New York City pursuing his craft while living in the basement of a friend's apartment on Washington Square.
In addition to Luther, program participants included: Dr. Ja A. Jahannes, musician Travis Biggs, The Telfair's Friends of African-American Art (who did so much to make the evening possible), its then director Steven High, curator Harry DeLorme, and many patrons, supporters, and fans. They all combined intentions and resources to demonstrate art's ability to endow a diverse community with a single beautiful purpose. That potential is one which has eluded too many in 2018 as educational institutions and organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts have seen their budgets butchered at a time when what creatives gift to society possibly has never been more needed.
The current political assaults on freedom of the press and individual expression make it even more important to savor the kind of rarity represented by Elemental's launch ten years ago. Moreover, the event takes on greater and greater significance because some of the key geniuses who made it happen are no longer with us on the physical plane and others have taken on new missions in different cities or countries. Vann died April 6, 2016, and Jahannes on July 5, 2015. (I last communicated with violinist Travis Biggs a few months before Luther passed but since then have not received any responses to phone messages or emails).
Dr. Jahannes' contribution to the celebration remains particularly memorable because with his eloquent, insightful, and often humorous comments on the art and poetry of Elemental he both "stole the show" and gave it back to the audience as a perfect gift. He had been asked to introduce the Coming Home video precisely because of his familiarity with our work both as individuals and as a team. In his words:
"Aberjhani and Luther Vann have dynamic synergism in their poetry and their paintings...'Luther Vann's paintings will enrich our community for years to come,' said Steven High in a preface to Elemental. So will the poetry of Aberjhani..."
He spoke with infectious ease when comparing Luther's work to that of painters as diverse as the Norwegian master Edvard Munch and the iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. He did the same when pointing out parallels between it and musicians such as the classical composer Antonin Dvorchak and giants of jazz John Coltrane and Miles Davis. An accomplished photographer himself, Jahannes further described as Vann as "a remarkable storyteller" and "a sensory artist" whose images engage viewers' attention on multiple levels:
"He's a master of sensory brilliance. His work is visual, captivating, and viscerally engaging... If you look at these paintings, you can almost hear them. They are auditory. There are voices emitted by color and arrangement. They're kinesthetic. Energy [is] generated by the arrangement of pulsating hues... They are tactile. You can almost feel the texture by the way he layers and juxtaposes color and arranges symbols and images..."
These observations have since helped various scholars and art lovers to more fully understand what they are viewing when going through the pages of the book, or standing in front of Luther's work at the Telfair Museum of Art or elsewhere.
The Deep Road to Infinity
Long before Elemental made cultural arts history in Savannah, I had become an admirer of Dr. Jahannes's poetry and essay collection, Truthfeasting. For that reason, I felt more than a little honored by his generous comments on the body of my published works and was thrilled to hear him recite the following passage:
We take the deep road to infinity.
His willingness to lend his voice in service to something greater than either of our individual ambitions was a large part of what defined Elemental's thematic substance. It brought to mind the great Lucille Clifton’s famous dictum that when it comes to identifying yourself as a poet and actually writing poetry, "One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated."
The celebratory evening of May 29, 2008, marked the culmination of an almost two-decade campaign to breathe life into a project which had survived, and in part been shaped by, the turbulence born of two creative individuals' private, social, political, and professional lives. The luxury of having finally reached a point of relief nearly overshadowed the excitement of having achieved a long-sought triumph. We soon realized we had completed only one more stage of a perpetually interactive process which would, much like the book, continue to unfold in layers of color and sparks of revelation.
NEXT: Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections & renewed hopes (part 2): illumination
The edits on my current book in progress were close to complete when Hurricane Matthew came to town and rearranged my priorities. President-Elect Donald Trump, at the time still a presidential candidate, contributed his fair share of distractions as well but that’s another blog for another time.
Along with its unexpected destructiveness in my hometown, Hurricane Matthew also delivered a few gifts. One of the most important of those gifts for me was the rediscovery of research materials in the form of notebooks from the 1990s long thought lost in the shuffle of previous relocations. The material turned up while storing and salvaging valuable to keep them safe from the hurricane.
The discovery of the notebooks themselves became part of my account––now included in the previously-noted book-in-progress–– of surviving Matthew. One of those notebooks contains an unvarnished story of the birth of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love. Because of the death of Luther E. Vann, my co-creator on the project, earlier this year, the notebook was a startling find.
Discussing the Possibility
Had he lived, Luther would have turned 79 on December 2, 2016, so it seems appropriate that notebooks and early recorded recitals of poems from ELEMENTAL should have started popping up at this time. The excerpt below is taken from notes dated September 11, 1992, more than a year after I first met the painter and sculptor.
At this point, I had been experimenting with writing poems based on his art but this was our first time discussing the possibility of working on a book together. Also during this period, comparing our developing friendship to the meeting between Jalal al-Din Rumi and Shams Tabrizi helped me visualize the possibility of working with an artist who had been practicing his craft much longer than I had been plying mine.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.