Wellesley

Radcliffe Bailey, Notes from Elmina III, 2011, gouache, collage, and ink on paper, 12 x 9". From the series “Notes from Elmina,” 2011–.

Radcliffe Bailey, Notes from Elmina III, 2011, gouache, collage, and ink on paper, 12 x 9". From the series “Notes from Elmina,” 2011–.

Radcliffe Bailey

Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Radcliffe Bailey, Notes from Elmina III, 2011, gouache, collage, and ink on paper, 12 x 9". From the series “Notes from Elmina,” 2011–.

Radcliffe Bailey’s multilayered narrative art explores issues of culture, memory, and history related to his heritage and experience as an African American. Titled “Memory as Medicine,” this near-two-decade survey (organized by Carol Thompson and Michael Rooks of the originating High Museum of Art in Atlanta) featured thirty-one works riffing on key chapters from the grand narrative of black history, with frequent allusions to tribal West Africa, aptly demonstrating the artist’s inspired ability to present his modern world as a continuum with his genetic past.

This spring, the Davis Museum featured works that incorporated such elements as tintypes of anonymous relatives, African statuary, model sailing ships, tobacco, and Georgia red clay to form stunning tableaux uniting fiction and history, trickery and documentary factitiousness. Windward Coast, 2009/2012, perhaps the show’s most ambitious installation, is a veritable sea of some 3,500 disembodied piano keys (still attached to their wooden leads), upon which a plaster head—that of a man—covered in black glitter has been set “afloat.” Notions of existential isolation are reinforced by the title of this monumental work, which refers to the portion of West Africa between Gambia and Liberia that once served as a major hub for the exportation of slaves to the Americas along the Middle Passage. Mounted on the wall near this heap of ebony, ivory, and wood was a conch shell, which, in a nod to Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, as well as to Glenn Ligon’s To Disembark, 1994, emitted the reverberations of piano keys falling to the floor recorded during the installation of a 2010 iteration. In this sculptural postscript to J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship, 1840, Bailey shifts the emphasis from a condemnation of the slave trade to an allegory of an African American’s sense of cultural isolation, loss, and self-determination.

Carrying this maritime conceit into two dimensions, the eight collages in this show mixed lively strokes of paint with cut-and-pasted images of tribal relics. For example, Western Current, 2010, a large watercolor work on paper, features a simple green boat loaded with a dense montage of African masks and wooden totems. An expressionist’s choppy sea in blue, green, and black fills the lower half of the composition, while above looms a foreboding sky, suggesting a dark future for the depicted shipment of cultural treasures, presumably en route to Western markets. Bailey’s quotation of masks and other tribal exotica references the historical typecasting of African art (not to mention Africans) by Eurocentric cultures such as ours.

Elsewhere in the show, Bailey appeared to make explicit reference to the absurdist visions of Hannah Höch and other Dadaists. Höch’s series “Aus einem ethnographischer Museum” (From an Ethnographic Museum), ca. 1924–34, was brought immediately to mind by Bailey’s “Notes from Elmina,” 2011–, a still-growing group of works combining images of African sculptures, sheet music, and abstract designs drawn in gouache and ink. Likewise grappling with issues of race and breaking down boundaries between self and other, Bailey reorders formal and symbolic relations to rekindle rather than exhaust the power of his subjects—both the discursive topics in play and the individuals to whom Bailey’s history also belongs.

Francine Koslow Miller