Music: The Power of Memory

Thornton Dial and Sylvester Francis
Sylvester Francis

Hard Truths,” the mesmerizing retrospective of Thornton Dial’s work at New Orleans Museum of Art, charts a progression of themes, largely in mixed-media assemblages, that convey black American life as an epic journey. Dial is one of those rare cultural figures: the truly self-made man. Critics and art historians debate the labels – folk, outsider, primitive, self-taught – as a way of categorizing artists who come to the mainstream from life experienced on the hard margins. What counts is not labels but the quality of work.

Dial, now 83, was raised by Alabama sharecroppers, left school before learning to read, became a Birmingham factory worker and made his works for years on his own time using available shards. “I only want materials that have been used by people, the works of the United States, that have did people some good, but once they got the service out of them they throwed them away,” Dial has said. “So I pick it up and make something new out of it. … My art is evidence of my freedom.”

Dial hit stride in the late 1980s with a series of tiger images. The orange, white and black stripes lead to paws curled like scrolls. The faces have a striking resemblance to African masks in animal motifs. Dial took the tiger on an odyssey, finding human parallels in a 1990 piece, “Cats Going to the Top,” a painting with a weave of stripes and mask-like human faces.

The curator Joanne Crubbs in a catalog essay writes that the “tiger cat [was] a kind of self-portrait, the symbol of a man who has the will to survive, to be himself – in spite of the brutal forces of Jim Crow.” Dial’s mixed-media pieces roam through variations in color fields, meshing together beads, toys, dolls and statuettes to suggest innocence in a fallen world. Dial’s full engagement with the quest for freedom has a mythic quality. “The very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth,” Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Dial’s works can be jolting, as in the red, white and blue arrangement with shards covering springs, entitled “Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag Is, It Still Got to Tie Us Together.” In contrast to the range of colors in his collages, Dial’s drawings evince a natural cubist sensibility – particularly his series on women. The most idealized of these is a 1997 charcoal and pencil on pastel memorializing the late Princess of Wales: “Last Trip Home (Diana’s Funeral).”

Thorton Dial’s “Stars of Everything,” 2004.

In Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2, William Arnett of Atlanta, who championed Dial’s career, writes that the death of Princess Diana “catalyzed Dial’s most ambitious series of art works … Her history of aligning herself (through charitable works) with the poor, the sick and the wounded helped make her a Robin Hood-type trickster figure, opposed at least slightly to the privileged system from which she sprang.” In a complex metal sculpture, “Doll House,” Diana’s ghost hovers outside an empty throne.

Resurrection themes from epic memory in Thornton Dial’s work radiate through the Backstreet Museum in Tremé. This is the life work of Sylvester Francis, a folk videographer and collector of historical pieces from the street culture of second-line parades. Backstreet, just opposite St. Augustine Church, displays stunning Mardi Gras Indian costumes, photographs and memorabilia from jazz funerals. The collection dates to 1992 when Francis rented a three-car garage in the 7th Ward to display photographs he had taken of Mardi Gras Indians; he became a fixture at funeral second-lines with a video camera. He kept telling anyone in earshot that he wanted a museum. For a guy who earned his way painting houses and working as a bouncer at Donna’s Bar (imagine it in those years), his dream seemed the stuff of pipes. But Joan Rhodes, of the dynasty that operates funeral homes, saw potential in his expanding collection; the Rhodes company donated the old Blandin mortuary at $1 a year. Francis opened Backstreet with the sub-logo “A powerhouse of knowledge” – and that’s no understatement.

Sylvester Francis isn’t a renowned artist; but, like Dial, he felt the powerful pull of ancestral memory. He saw the aesthetic value of music to honor the dead, the beauty of costumes and spontaneous choreographies in the Indian parades and second-line clubs. When the apartment where he and his family lived in the Lower 9th Ward flooded out after Hurricane Katrina, they landed in the horrors of the Convention Center, then took to the road but made it back in October 2005. Backstreet was the first museum to reopen after Katrina, while Francis and his wife lived in the office, putting their lives back together.

As Dial reassembled the leavings of an industrial society into acclaimed art works, Francis took the goods of ephemera – the parades in outback streets – and gave them permanence. The beaded patches on display from the Indian gang Spirit of the Fi-Yi-Yi radiate African motifs. “When the word got out that I was opening up, more people starting calling – ‘I got my daddy’s stuff, I got my mama’s stuff,’” Francis told me several years ago, pulling on a Kool cigarette, explaining Backstreet’s origins. “And that’s how I filled this building up.”

Categories: Theatre + Art