Halos are heavier than they look. The sanctification that they signify typically comes at a steep cost. It’s no mystery how the beleaguered central characters in the mixed-media pieces by Danielle Scott earned those golden rings around their heads. They’re haunted and wearied by the long and bitter history of slavery. Trauma is apparent in their posture, in facial expressions that combine accusation with hope and resignation, and the rough cuts with which the artist brings her paper dolls to life. Their beatitude is made manifest by the radiance that surrounds them.
“Ancestral Call,” which is on view at Gallery Aferro in Newark until Jan. 21 before moving to The Galleries at New Jersey City University, consistently locates the beauty in struggle. That is Scott’s gift: She presents portraits of people in evident distress without condescending to them. None of her subjects are plunged into victimhood. She is able to achieve holy radiance without resorting to martyrdom. If only American history had been so kind.
Like Elizabeth Colomba, another youthful provocateur who makes her art schooling evident, Scott fits Black faces and Black bodies in poses and situations that recall classic images from the Western canon. Her cut-out images of human beings are glued in position and tucked under blankets of resin, frozen in time in arrangements that feel immediately familiar.
“Celia and Bazile Churchill” isn’t quite a Madonna and Child, but the golden rings around the head of the guarded mother and the guilelessness of the little daughter are a powerful callback to Renaissance iconography of sacrifice and divine sovereignty. “Milkweed Blessings,” which depicts a haloed barefoot boy courting an expectant girl, feels as neatly composed and wholesomely American as a painting by Winslow Homer — or Norman Rockwell.
The clapboard shacks that house Scott’s characters tend to point toward the heavens the way churches do in Medieval depictions of worship. The “Ruth Afontaine Family,” for instance, spill out of the door of a tumbledown house with proprietary looks on their faces. There are even hints of Brueghel in some of Scott’s boisterous assemblies and a mischievous, satirical streak that runs straight through the show, enlivening what might otherwise be crushed by the gravity of the subject matter.
But those shacks squat on unfree territory. Signs of poverty, disempowerment and injustice are everywhere in Scott’s work. Curators Anthony E. Boone and Bryant Small — two other prominent African-American artists working in North Jersey — aren’t afraid to foreground the context, or land their punches squarely on the nose. “We Did Not Enslave Ourselves,” a sculpture, incorporates a noose; “WasherWoman” is a wallfull of scrub-boards; “Griff (The Offspring of Someone Labeled ‘Negro’)” makes scalding use of a cross.
Scott incorporates clutches of cotton into more than a few of her assemblages. Though her characters are decked out in their Sunday best, wearing glued-on shirts and pants in flamboyant colors and patterns, their faces are always the grainy black and white of a newspaper photograph or a printed, pixilated digital reproduction. The gold-colored sheets, shells and pearl jewelry affixed by resin all gleam, but the frames are invariably made from the same rough-hewn wood that might have propped up slave quarters. We can make ourselves pretty, these characters seem to be saying, but the context in which we must operate is abominable.
Scott’s subjects are accomplices in the communication of her great theme: the vexed way in which mental recall operates, and the fragility of heritage and the necessity of its reclamation. Cultural memory warps and twists in the hands of oppressors. But “Ancestral Call” has plenty to say about individual memory, too.
Scott’s pieces have the feel of the half-reconstructed: dream elements and twice-told tales, fables and American myths, and collectively held assumptions about the South and the antebellum period, sharecropping and rural penury. Certain details are in sharp focus while others fade into the background. The natural world is often a rush of evocative and near-formless shape, while individual interiors are rendered with precision, right down to the crockery on the table of the gut-punch family scene in “True Love Galennie.”
Strips of paper cut from genealogies hover over many of these assemblages, including “Sir Glesby and Madame Letty,” where the names are like a hard rain falling on the halos of a pair of glum children. In “King Constance,” part of the family is missing: Two cutouts in the form of humans, ringed by yellow tape, are nothing but lines of lost relatives. In the corner, a baby of indeterminate gender squats; he or she is dressed in a garment of explosive gold, but his or her face is an erasure-smear.
Scott, Bryant and Boone drive these points home with an actual genealogy, sitting open on a ledge at the back of the gallery, readable in earshot of “Ships on the Horizon,” a relevant song by Newark singer-songwriter JanetZa Miranda, played on a loop. It is here where it becomes apparent that Scott isn’t merely entertaining or even enlightening us with history. She expects us to be present to the monstrous act of violence that severed a people from their heritage — and in so doing, made it harder for us to access our own American stories, no matter who we are. The artist is asking us to know these people she’s reanimating. They are bruised, weathered and mistreated, but she has made sure they have names.
If you’re sharp-eyed, you might even encounter the artist herself. In the august presence of “Bertha Margaret — Sylvia,” an elderly woman with slight shoulders, an exhausted dignity and a pair of booted feet planted firmly on the soil, she is almost completely dwarfed. But there she is, over to the side of the big canvas, in Birkenstocks and blue jeans, with a pair of headphones on. She could be on the lawn at a concert.
While Sylvia and the other human figures in the assemblage are portrayed in black and white, Scott’s cutout has the worn but fully chromatic tone of a vintage family photograph. There, out of time, engaged in a battle against anonymity and the clock, she struggles with the same perceptual disjunction that her viewer does.
The injustices and acts of cultural erasure that she sees are rooted in the American past, but they’re not over. The world Danielle Scott is depicting is the one we’re inhabiting right now.
“Ancestral Call” will be on display at Gallery Aferro in Newark through Jan. 21; visit aferro.org.
For more about Scott, visit artistdaniellescott.com.
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