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I’m Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
Michael Ray Charles’ project for Landmarks, the public art program of The University of Texas at Austin is titled (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations. The phrase “Forever Free” connects the work to Charles larger body of production, much of which also bears this enigmatic phrase, a reference itself to the history of image making both within and about the African Diaspora in the United States. The second part of the title, Ideas, Languages and Conversations, speaks more specifically to the site in which the work is located, the newly expanded and renovated Gordon-White Building, home to several of the university’s academic departments and centers that are dedicated to the study of historically marginalized groups. Through its presence in this space, this sculpture creates a visual metaphor for the challenges that these scholars of a broader and more inclusive American history, life, and culture have faced as they researched and championed their intellectual interests. In making the sculpture, Charles, a painter and sculptor who taught at this university for over two decades, reflected on the challenges that minority communities, of which he had been a part, faced as they worked to bring the study of previously marginalized experiences to the center of academic life on campus.
Charles looks to the evolving nature of language and material objects to inform his work. His interest in material manifestations of racism extends into his practice as an artist and professor of art. He has said, and I quote, “the source of my work comes from my love for information, sociology and creative culture… art, architecture, music, philosophy, language, its construction, application and evolution. Perhaps and most importantly, conceptual and representational applications of power throughout visual cultures past and present are amongst my most significant triggers of creative inspiration,” closed quote. The linear, triangulating shape of the crutches become a readymade material element through which a formal transformation can take place, making a new artistic configuration. By joining the crutches at their tops, Charles renders them useless as supports while suggesting increased mobility as they adopt the form of stars and wheels. Newly transformed, these readymade elements take on artistic lives in which they signify or refer allegorically to other cultural forms and symbols.
In this way, the sculpture evokes varied associations through the star forms that are created by the clusters of crutches. These can suggest the “Black Star” logo of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department housed in this building, which in turn recalls the Black Star Shipping Line founded by the early twentieth-century radical activist Marcus Garvey and the iconic Lone Star of the state of Texas. Further, each of the twenty-six stars corresponds to a different letter of the alphabet, pointing to the crucial role that language, the word, and literature have played in the history of African American culture and activism, and the development of Black studies in particular. Charles sees the artistic transformation of the crutches as underscoring these programs’ resourcefulness and highlighting the ability of its faculty to “make-do” and “make better.”
(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations references the perpetual state of transition in which these fields often find themselves, and the transformative impact that area studies, curricula and faculty frequently have in the intellectual lives of the students who take such courses. It helps envision the past and passed limits and future possibilities that are present in the unique space of the Gordon-White Building.
American, born 1967
Michael Ray Charles was born in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1967, when the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement was giving way to riotous social and cultural upheaval. Like artists Kara Walker (born 1969) and Fred Wilson (born 1954), in his work Charles explores African and African American oppression and prejudice. He is best known for work that appropriates derogatory images in order to disparage racist stereotypes. For (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations, Charles departs from this mode and takes a more metaphorical approach, explaining, “Conceptual and representational applications of power throughout visual cultures past and present have been among my most significant triggers of creative inspiration.”
(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations is suspended in the atrium of the Gordon-White Building, home to centers that are committed to studying the history and experience of minority cultures. Charles selected the location because it joins a classic 1952 university building to a newly constructed addition used by students and scholars of the historically marginalized. In designing the atrium’s interior, he preserved architectural ornaments from the original building and added rough, exposed surfaces to create a meaningful segue into the polished departmental offices. The result is both sculpture and site—a symbolic transition between the inherited establishment and a future that explores new ways of thinking and being.
Charles’ sculpture is made from wooden crutches assembled in groups to create star-shaped wheels. The individual parts maintain their own trajectory, yet form a common mass in an energetic composition. When imagining the project, Charles was partly inspired by the activity of scholars who study minority cultures and the challenges they have faced in academic institutions. (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations, now the centerpiece of a thriving enterprise that champions multiculturalism and diversity, is emblematic of institutional progress and transformation. By claiming the wounds of the past and acknowledging the support needed to heal, it recognizes all who have suffered inequality and carries the promise of future growth and hope.
Location: Gordon-White Building (GWB) Atrium
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