Tag Archives: maya angelou

History Is No Mystery: Artist, Shea Justice, at The Fountain Street Gallery, Boston

17 Jun

On May 14th, ten Black women and men, including an 86 year-old grandmother, were murdered at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York by a young, white supremacist man with an automatic rifle. Shortly afterward on May 24th, 19 children and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. All the while, local Board of Education seats are being filled with white folks supported by parents who fear their children will be called racist in lessons on critical race theory, and, majority white gun owners continue to fight against gun restriction laws, claiming the Second Amendment protects their rights to perpetuate this country’s history of violence.

History is no mystery.

In his solo exhibition, History Is No Mystery, a collection of beautiful and riveting works in watercolor and collage, Boston-based fine artist, Shea Justice, shows us the history of the United States from its so- called founding days to today. He shows us that the shooting in Buffalo, the murder of George Floyd, of Eric Garner, of Sandra Bland, of Emmett Till, the execution of 14-year old George Stinney, the breaking of hundreds of treaties between colonists and countless Native American tribes, the history of enslavement, and all the more covert ways our country has embedded systems of oppression in all facets of American life over the centuries, are not isolated incidents. They are our history. They are the truth of our country’s story. They are the stories that we keep hidden. They are the stories excluded from our history books—the lessons not taught in our schools.

Shea’s work which another viewer of the exhibition called, delicately devastating, reveals this history. Witnessing the exhibit, I was drawn in through the juxtaposition of the sheer beauty of Shea’s renderings coupled with the jarring power of the truths revealed in the collaged text elements embedded in many of the works. As a white woman who grew up during the end of the civil rights era, I see through the lens of my identity and experience, and was reminded of the waking up to the fullness of our country’s history of race over the years of my life’s journey, an awakening and reckoning that will continue throughout my lifetime.

Several of the works in the exhibit have an enlarged copy of the United States Constitution serving as the background on which Shea paints a historical figure on top of the document. Surrounding the figure, Shea collages text from newspaper clippings and other sources which counter the narrative we project about a country where we are all supposed to have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One of these pieces features a portrait of formerly enslaved abolitionist, and women’s right activist, Sojourner Truth. The portrait, which is painted over the center of the Constitution, is surrounded by collaged bits of text. One phrase says, Free, White, and 21, a familiar line that showed up in a lot of 1930’s and 40’s films reflecting the ultimate stance of white privilege.  Other clippings note the gerrymandering of voting districts, lynchings, and a quote from Supreme Court Justice, “Black students don’t need affirmative action because they benefit from a ‘slower track.’”

The bit of text that stood out for me in the Sojourner Truth piece was a paragraph of text in the lower left corner with the headline, Nixon Aide Reportedly Admitted Drug War Was Meant to Target Black People.  I remember when I read this article somewhere a few years ago. It reminded me of a talk I had with an old high school friend, Jay, when I first started this blog ten years ago. I reached out to Jay, who is Black, to share about our experiences at school, and on growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and how they might have been different, and the same, from one another’s. He told me of a time his guidance counselor told him he shouldn’t try to take the Latin class he was interested in. We also got into deeper structural talks about race, including how drugs were brought into Black neighborhoods by the government to destroy those neighborhoods. I remember hearing that before, and I believed it, but it was on this, oh, almost non-chalant, numb, level.

I lived in New York City in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and witnessed the devastation and especially, the criminalization of crack cocaine, during what was called “the crack epidemic,” on people in Black communities and communities of color. One can look at the way the current “opioid crisis” is being afforded the lens of compassion and humanity with a call for treatment over criminalization, and again, we see that history is no mystery.

Jay and I talked again during the last election season. During our conversation on all that was going on with police killings of unarmed Black people, and the inequities that still exist for Black people in this country, Jay said, ‘…I was trying to tell you….” And he was. And he did. And still, as someone who feels that the matter of liberating ourselves from racial injustice is the most important matter in our lives, it still took me time to say, to feel, oh…Oh…OHHHH! in the face of our history. I believe, as white people who continue to benefit from the way our country was formed and continues to operate, we cannot wait any longer, or need any more proof that we need to make things just in our country for all of us. Our inaction is complicity in upholding white supremacy.

 

Witnessing Shea’s exhibit, amplified for me the importance of bearing witness to this truth. The exhibit also drove the point that, I know as a white person, it can be easy to only see the pain of the “story” of Black people in this country, and to render invisible, the everyday lives of Black people as individuals—the successes, the joys, the individual humanity of Black people. I know I am forever working on widening my lens from the binary, the all-or-nothing thinking and seeing lens which I can fall into. This, too, is because of the history of this country, which put white people and whiteness at the center, as superior, as the norm. A history which created laws and systems that fostered segregation, despite school desegregation laws, and fostered inequities in housing, education, employment, and economic standing.

In History Is No Mystery, Shea has works, mostly collages, woven throughout the exhibit that are personal, complex, and layered. Also featured are watercolor portraits of icons, including Maya Angelou, and Muhammed Ali.  Upon entering the show, I was met with three of Shea’s personal works– smaller pieces—collages containing photos, magazine cutouts, and a few three-dimensional objects–a shelf of 1990’s cassette tapes including Public Enemy, John Lennon, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones, and a doll-house sized picnic table. The artifacts and photos are recollections of Shea’s family reunions, extended family, and his own coming of age. Family photos, 70’s cartoons, Black, and white television and film characters, pop culture and sports figures–a lot of it was a part of my growing up landscape too. A small text panel within one of the collages shares a history of Shea’s family dating back to the 1800’s. Shea generously shared some recollections of his family picnics, and the fact that these collages were begun when Shea was in the hospital last year after a bad car accident. The first collage actually contains a copy of one of Shea’s x-rays. He said he saved all of them. The x-rays a record of his accident, the collages a record of his family, of being American, of Black life in America.

All of these works are a record, and they serve as history, which Shea is set on documenting, if only we all are willing to see it. In History Is No Mystery, a portion of a project that Shea has been working on for the past twenty years was also featured, by way of video display. Scrolls of Justice, as they are called, are miles of rice paper scrolls dense with illustrations, paintings, handwritten text and collage that Shea began during the 2000 George Bush elections. Another documentation of history which Shea continues to work on, with hopes that this artistic recording of our nation’s true history will one day be displayed in the Smithsonian Museum. I know that I want to view more of the scrolls, and hope that they make it to the museum, so that many more people can witness, learn, reckon with, repair, begin to heal, and work to forge a history that is truly about freedom and justice for all of us.

***

History Is No Mystery is showing at The Fountain Street Gallery, 460C Harrison Avenue, Suite 2, Boston, MA through June 26th, with an Artist Talk with Shea on Sunday, June 19th, 2 – 4 pm. (click link to watch the livestream)

getting to meet the artist, Shea Justice

Remembering Maya Angelou With A Collective Facebook Poem

30 May

maya2For those of you who don’t already know, I write a poem a day on Facebook made up entirely from my friends’ Status Updates.

With the passing of the phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou–poet, activist, teacher, survivor, author, playwright, director, this week, I wanted to share the Facebook poem written on the day she left us.  There was, on that day, such an outpouring of love and remembrance, and it continues still with posts of her many inspirational quotes, and videos of her reading her work, and even of Ms. Angelou’s last tweet:

 

maya angelou tweet

I can recall from time to time on social media I’d see, primarily, women of color, post a poem of hers–Phenomenal Women, or Rise, or, reference I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and relate how the poet’s words spoke to them, healed them, inspired them.  Yet, I know during her lifetime, and I am witnessing in her passing, that Maya Angelou was revered by all of humanity–whether brown, black or white, people are mourning her loss, and celebrating the gifts she bestowed upon all of us with her genius, compassion, her fight for what was right, and for how she lived her life being who she truly was.

I know that this is a time where I can grow and be enriched by returning to and reading more of Ms. Angelou’s work.  Here is the poem that was written using many of my friends’ voices on the day that this great woman left us.

 

Facebook Poem 5/28/14

 

#ripmayaangelou
a remarkable woman…
“you done been through
some things”
thank you Maya Angelou
for your words, your presence,
your joy, your love
“with Maya Angelou’s passing,
America has lost a
national treasure”
but the world has lost
a brilliant soul
unbearable. and borne. no words.
and, there are a few people
who leave this world
truly the less when
they leave us behind
she will be missed but
her gifts to us all
will live on
your words will live
forever in my soul
speak life into
every soul you
talk to today
#grace #dignity #shero
#mayaangelou #rip

Thanks to this day’s poem contributors:  Mary-Fran Honeyman, Carmen Head (a Maya Angelou quote), Keith Thompson, Ken Harge, Hilton Als, Rodney L. Davis, David Still, Kelly Quinn, Adrienne Wallace, Denitra Letrice