Arturo Lindsay’s art, presented in a semi-retrospective at Hammonds House Museum recently extended through October 24, forms a bridge between unwritten histories, encompassing past possibilities that remained unspoken or unfulfilled, and the prospects of a not yet fully emerged future. But most Atlanta viewers can cross that bridge only with benefit of conceptual maps.
Fortunately, a succinct brochure provides a guide for those left baffled once we leave familiar territory.
Lindsay has divided the downstairs galleries between the topics of death and love, in that order, and, wisely, begins with a 2016 re-creation of his 1986 commemoration of the death of Ana Mendieta, which has been a topic of continuous art world conversation ever since it happened in 1985, back when Lindsay was a working artist in New York. A shrine with seashells surrounds a mannequin representing Mendieta, with a shrine to the Virgin of Montserrat in the niche behind it –a set of symbolic objects and practices that introduce us to Lindsay’s exploration of transculturación or transculturation, the blending of cultures that characterizes the African Diaspora — and other diaspora cultures as well.
The Mendieta memorial is surrounded by paintings from 2015-2016 paying homage to the nine victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church, to the 102 young black men killed by police officers in 2015, but also to the five police officers killed in Dallas — “death is death,” Lindsay observes — and to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, this last accompanied by an unpublished poem by Ntosake Shange.
After this darkness, the “love” room ought to provide lightness in several senses, but the combination of humor and insight only comes through with a considerable amount of prior knowledge. The Love Hunter Jacket/Chaqueta del cazador de amor diptych (2007) alludes to the hunting jackets worn in many parts of Africa, but without that knowledge it is difficult to note that the front is full of amulets intended to attract love, while the back is sewn up and obsessively protective against its harmful consequences. As with most artwork, the more the viewer knows about the meaning of the symbols, the more dimensions open up.
No such depth of previous experience is needed to understand the Children of Middle Passage series (2001), which hangs in the back gallery just past the Portraits of Yemayá (1998-2012) photographs of the interactions between coastal dwellers and the ocean (associated in African Diaspora religions with the ocean spirit Yemayá). Created in Portobelo, Panama, where Lindsay has established an artists’ residency program, these works memorialize the children who died en route from Africa to slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas. His imaginary portraits, to which he assigned African names and towns of origin, are accompanied by drawings of specific, not generic, slave ships.
The memorialization of the otherwise unmemorialized continues in the upstairs gallery, devoted to the cimarrones, the escaped slaves who formed fortified villages during the Spanish colonial period in Panama, and to the escaped slaves in the United States who assumed new identities and passed as freedmen (and women). Again, the works are filled with the symbols and objects of the African Diaspora religions that would have been known to The Kings of the Cimarrones/Los Reyes de los Cimarrones (1994) and The Runaways/Los Cimarrones (2003-2004). The portraits, once more, are imaginary, and the African names replacements for unknown ones, but one pseudonym is real — Osei A. K. A. Dr. Anderson actually masqueraded as Doctor Anderson in order to hide in plain sight.
In contradistinction to the heroically scaled portrait heads of the kings, the modestly scaled portraits of the runaways are flanked by bamboo shutters that close over them, symbolizing their need for concealment, and surrounded by the protective shells, feathers, and bones familiar from earlier works.
Most recently, Lindsay has gone beyond the Diaspora into representations of cosmic origins in which letters and numbers, as in Celestial Map/Mapa celeste 05.30.16, encountered the topic of prebiotic chemistry. He has begun to make work that combines the frontiers of research into the origins of life with the Yoruba and African Diaspora notion of ashé, the force that practitioners regard as the elusive source of everything.
In other words, his recent retirement from a long teaching career at Spelman College has freed Lindsay to explore even more immense worlds as an artist.