The Art Institute in Chicago has a great collection of African-American art and in the coming weeks I will feature artists from their collection as well as other great museums in the country. First up, Glenn Ligon. I chose Glenn because though I was not exposed to him prior to starting my own career I recognize similarities in our work and lives and I really dig his art.
Glenn Ligon often uses language in his paintings to address the position of African Americans (especially men) in contemporary America. His previous works have included texts written by Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Genêt. This work includes text from James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” first published in 1953.
Baldwin wrote the essay during a writing retreat in a small village in Switzerland. In it, he wrote about what it was like to be a black man in a foreign land. The feelings of isolation and lack of acceptance he experienced provided him with insight about race relations in the United States before the Civil Rights era.
Ligon chose a specific passage of the essay and stenciled the words in black on a black background, intentionally making the text illegible. His addition of coal dust to the painting’s surface further obscured the text. The blackened painting evokes rage, a word that Baldwin used repeatedly in his text to describe the feelings of black Americans, relatives of slaves whom he described as having been excluded from the traditions of the West.