LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience

Dustin Harewood

Missing Event Data

The framework for the art showing at the Cummer Museum’s exhibition LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience, left a lot of room for expression, giving artists the words and melody of the song ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ as an inspiration. Director Hope McMath says that they asked the artists to “marry the message in that song with who you are, and how you are looking at our contemporary situation, around race, around equity, around inclusion, around brutality and hope.”

“marry the message in that song with who you are, and how you are looking at our contemporary situation, around race, around equity, around inclusion, around brutality and hope.”

When you arrive at the Lift exhibition at the Cummer you’ll find a variety of artistic styles and interpretations as diverse as the artists themselves. “We were looking for artists who were already doing socially relevant works, or knew they were interested in going down that path. We weren’t trying to turn a flower painter into an activist,” says, McMath, when asked how they chose who would be part of the showing. They co-curated the list of artists with the Ritz Theatre and then invited the ten artists to discuss. All of the artists invited said yes. Certain local artists’ names came to the fore in discussions, because they were already doing work like this, but as the art was challenging and controversial, there weren’t many places to show it. The Lift exhibition creates a space where these artistic voices can be heard.

Lift E’vry Voice’ is sung in churches, black and white, across the nation, but the ones who lift their voices to sing it often don’t know the origins of the song, or that it was written by a set of brothers born in Jacksonville. When the eldest of the brothers, James Weldon Johnson, was born in 1871, Ulysses S. Grant was president. The Civil War was over, but the fight for black equality was just beginning. That year, Grant signed the Third Force Act, also known as the Klu Klux Act, expanding the power of the federal government to fight organizations such as the KKK. James wrote the words to ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice’ in 1900 as a poem, but within five years, his brother John set it to music. By the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 60s, it became a kind of black national anthem, reflecting hope and a difficult path. If you don’t know the song, don’t worry, it’s piped in the background of the exhibition.

Princess Simpson Rashid
Princess Simpson Rashid

The list of artists seen here is diverse in gender and race: Thony Aiuppy, Glendia Cooper, Ingrid Damiani, Overstreet Ducasse, Dustin Harewood, Marsha Hatcher, Hiromi Moneyhun, Princess Simpson Rashid, Chip Southworth, and Roosevelt Watson III all created art for Lift. We had the chance to speak with three of the artists about their work in the show.

Marsha Hatcher, Lift Every Voice, Cummer Museum
Marsha Hatcher

The focal point of the exhibition is three pieces from artist Marsha Hatcher. Each piece focuses on one of the stanzas of the song, the words etched over and under the images on the canvas, while also reflecting the black experience through the lens of history.

The song, Hatcher tells me, was first conceived as a poem written in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. To honor Lincoln’s connection “without making the whole thing about him,” since Lincoln is such an overwhelmingly powerful figure, the young man in the first painting has an earring in a miniature version of the Lincoln penny. She chose the image of a young black man because she feels that his is the voice least heard.

For the second stanza, she’s painted an image of the protesters from the 1960s, holding hands. Linking together wasn’t something they did just because they were friendly, the artist explains, they did it out necessity: “kids holding hands was the way they unified themselves,” against fire hoses and other threats. You’ll also see a piece of wood in the lower left corner (it’s an axe handle) and a noose.

Overstreet Ducasse
Overstreet Ducasse

The axe handle in her piece is a reference to Axe Handle Saturday. Coincidentally, Alton Yates was among the crowd viewing the the pieces in the gallery the day I was there. You may or may not know his name, but he’s a key part of this iconic moment in the fight against segregation here in Jacksonville. On August 27, 1960, he was one of the black leaders who organized a sit-down protest at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s. When black students were told to go sit at the designated “colored” table in the back, earlier in the month, they’d staged a sit-in at the “white” counter at the front. It was something they’d been doing for more than ten days, filling in the seats while being refused lunch service. But on this day, when they left, they were attacked by an angry mob wielding ax handles.

“A lot of the past is ugly,” Hatcher says, “but there’s good stuff about the world, so I try to get a balance…if you don’t have any hope, what’s the use?”

Ax Handle Saturday is a historic moment that some of Jacksonville would like to gloss over, to say that we’re totally past that time. But we are not. Alton Yates is alive. So are many of the men who took up axe-handles in defense of segregation, who were so threatened by the idea of eating next to a black man that they took up weapons. Our name is forever linked with that melee, that violence. But it’s also linked to Yates, and those like him, who had the courage to say “no more!” and did it by sitting at a lunch counter.

The last of the tryptic combines an image of Africa and the USA. The image of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday in 1965, also figures prominently. The focus though, where the eye is drawn, is the hope–and that’s something that’s very important to the artist. In upper left-hand corner is an African symbol for hope, with hands outstretched, reaching for that hope. God, who is mentioned in the last stanza, is also part of the painting. He’s represented by a dark-skinned man, his head covered in a cowl. “A lot of the past is ugly,” Hatcher says, “but there’s good stuff about the world, so I try to get a balance…if you don’t have any hope, what’s the use?”

Thony Aiuppy, Lift Every Voice, Cummer Museum, EU Jacksonville
Thony Aiuppy

“I had an experience with a grad school counselor who said, ‘You talk about painting the South, but everyone in your paintings looks like you.’ And I was stunned. So that started this revolution or evolution in my paintings.”

One of the white artists in the exhibition is Thony Aiuppy. Hailing from the Midwest, he started out being interested in creating art reflecting his experiences in the South. He’d already created a body of work and had been re-reading Huck Finn, when a conversation changed everything. “I had an experience with a grad school counselor who said, ‘You talk about painting the South, but everyone in your paintings looks like you.’ And I was stunned. So that started this revolution or evolution in my paintings,” says Aiuppy. From that point on, he was determined to tell a more complete story. Prior to this show, he’d created works reflecting the history of race relations, something that definitely is a big part of our history. In the pieces shown, he mixes time periods reflecting the relationship between blacks and whites in his two paintings, the sky reflecting the hope yet to come, in an apocalyptic landscape, though the churches are intact.

“The whole thing was about strength and perseverance, and specifically that period of Reconstruction [when Stanton College was founded]. That ten year window, when the country actually lived up to the ideals of the Constitution. It was a beautiful moment it–it was a blink. But I really wanted to start a body of work that dealt with that whole period, and this was the first piece in that body.”

The Stanton College Preparatory School, which at the time was a segregated high school serving the black community here in Jacksonville, was the first place ‘Lift E’very Voice and Sing’ was heard publicly. It’s featured in one of Princess Simpson Rashid’s pieces. She has multiple pieces in the gallery, most of them highly abstract work. But this piece is one of the few that wasn’t specifically commissioned for this exhibition. While it has abstractive elements, the figures and structure are distinct against the vibrant colors. Long before the Cummer commissioned the exhibition, she had done the painting on her own, years ago, as a homage to the school and James Weldon Johnson. Says Rashid about the piece: “The whole thing was about strength and perseverance, and specifically that period of Reconstruction [when Stanton College was founded]. That ten year window, when the country actually lived up to the ideals of the Constitution. It was a beautiful moment it–it was a blink. But I really wanted to start a body of work that dealt with that whole period, and this was the first piece in that body.” She had wanted to keep the painting for herself, so she placed a high price on it. But it caught the eye of art collector Richard K. Shafer, during a show at CoRK, who kept thinking about the piece. Talking to Rashid about it, I can see that she’s glad the piece went where it was appreciated and valued, because it’s a passionate subject. When the call to artists went out, Rashid contacted Shafer, and he graciously agreed to loan out the painting for the exhibition. Her other pieces are the most abstract out of all the art shown here, each titled with a line from the song. Figures swim in and out of the images, and you’ll find a bit of yourself as you meditate on the titles while looking at the works. If you love abstract works, her monotypes are definitely something you should visit.

The powerful and sometimes controversial pieces of LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience will be available to view through February 12, 2017.

About Erin Thursby