Remembering Radcliffe Bailey Through Radical Black Art
Radcliffe Bailey’s prolific work developed unique narratives of the African American experience
Written by Shantay Robinson
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, it was announced that visual artist Radcliffe Bailey died of brain cancer 10 days before his 55th birthday. Bailey’s prolific work developed unique narratives of the African American experience through a distinctive visual language. He depicted family intimately, as well as collectively, with details referencing his own familial legacy and the diaspora. His art ultimately portrays the resiliency and connectivity of a people.
The narratives he crafted with a language of visuals are nuanced and original. And in the wake of his passing, looking closely at Radcliffe Bailey’s art confirms the importance of his work for those who knew him and introduces his art’s saliency for those who didn’t.
“If you want to know the history of people, you can study them by their art,” Bailey said in a video for the High Museum of Art.
This statement is relevant because his art gets personal. Images of his family members from the tintypes that were passed down to him; vocabulary of motifs that include train tracks, in reference to his family’s journey from the South to the North via the Underground Railroad and his father’s work as a railroad engineer; and references to water referring to him and his father’s time out fishing and to Black people’s collective forced migration west allow viewers to know him through his art.
In 2011, the High Museum held a mid-career retrospective of Bailey’s work, Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine, curated by Carol Thompson and Michael Rooks. The exhibition included some of his most unforgettable works, including “Windward Coast” (2009-11), an installation of a Black head drowning in a sea of piano keys from 400 pianos spread across the exhibition space floor. The artwork represents those who were thrown overboard during the middle passage, a story that has been eliminated from history books. The sinking head seems to be calling out amid the sea of piano keys’ overwhelming position.
In “Notes from Elmina,” a series where Bailey paints directly on classical composition sheet music, he contemplates the musical soundtrack of the transatlantic slave trade. He uses the sheet music and depictions of African sculpture and landscape to juxtapose the music as an icon of Western culture with Africa’s natural and cultural development. Elmina is the name of a slave castle off the coast of Ghana. By including elements from both cultures, he’s developed a narrative that is deeply inclusive and tells a unique story. Bailey recognizes that music is a connector of people throughout the world. Creating art about Elmina not only strikes a chord with its allusion to slavery, but it foregrounds it to the zeitgeist at the time.
“EW, SN” (2011), another of Bailey’s very identifiable works, is a dark painting with layers, both literally and figuratively. He added seven layers of paint to the canvas and attributed this painterly technique to his training as a sculptor, but also to his thought process. There are clues in this painting that tell the story of his family’s migration and the migration of Black people within the United States. Not only are the ladders for upward mobility but they represent railroad tracks depicting his family’s escape from slavery via the Underground Railroad.
His collages and assemblages work in similar ways as he collects media to tell stories, allowing viewers to make connections between often disparate objects. The layering of images and forms onto flat surfaces in his collages is a practice developed as a student of sculpture as are his assemblages of objects. An allusion to water is also present in his works, suggesting traversing the ocean from Africa to the West through the transatlantic slave trade. But his most memorable motif might be that of family–his own and the larger population of diasporic Africans. In his practice of including family into his work, he makes his viewer look beyond what is written about in history books and into their hearts.
Concerned with history and mystery, he was intrigued by Jacob Lawrence’s art as a child for his ability to experience a different time through the Migration Series. The work sparked curiosity in him. He was able to meet Lawrence at the High Museum at a book signing as a young person, where his mother told Lawrence, “My son’s going to be an artist.” Like Lawrence did for him, Bailey wants to spark curiosity in people through his work.
“I want to make someone search,” he tells the High.
And his artwork does that by letting the viewer make the connections in his paintings and sculptures.
Radcliffe Bailey was born in New Jersey in 1968, but his family moved to Atlanta in the 1970s. And he lived and worked there since. He attended Atlanta College of Art and majored in sculpture. He explored themes of ancestry, race, and memory using culturally rich materials and layered imagery in his work as a painter, sculptor, and mixed media artist. He developed common grammars in the vocabulary of his visual narratives.
Bailey is survived by his wife, Leslie Parks Bailey, the daughter of famed photographer Gordon Parks; his daughter, Olivia; his son, Coles, and his parents, Brenda and Radcliffe Sr.
Bailey’s art is currently on view in several exhibitions, including Filling in the Pieces in Black at Saatchi in London until November 26 and in Brussels until December 17; 45th at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans until December 16; The Big Picture at Night Gallery in Los Angeles until Dec. 22; Sightlines: On Peace, Power, and Prestige; Metal Arts in Africa at Bard Graduate Center in New York City until Dec. 31; and Multiplicity: Blackness in Contemporary American Collage at Frist Art Museum in Nashville until Dec. 31.
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