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Art Review: Emotional Performances in Portland and Rockland Explore the Experience of the African Diaspora

Billy Gerard Frank, “Second Eulogy: Mind The Gap (The Sacrifice. NO.2)”, 2019. Image courtesy of Billy Gerard Frank/Elizabeth Moss Galleries

Two deeply moving shows – “Eulogies,” a multimedia installation by Billy Gerard Frank at Moss Galleries Portland (until August 13) and “Daniel Minter: A Other Crossing” at Dowling Walsh in Rockland (until August 27) – explore many aspects of the African diaspora experience. Be warned: these are important shows with important messages and are also likely to elicit feelings of anger, grief, even revulsion.

Billy Gerard Frank is a New York-based multimedia artist with Maine ties (he was studio assistant to New York and Maine painter John Hultberg for years and spent several summers on Monhegan Island). He is of Grenadian origin and has represented the island twice at the Venice Biennale (2019 and this year). It’s his first show in Maine, and he’s packing a big punch.

The centerpiece is a 40-minute video (“2n/a Eulogy: Mind the Gap”), which mixes fiction with Frank’s personal memories of growing up gay in Grenada as the child of a white Scottish mother and a black Grenadian father. “As well as telling my father’s life story, I wanted to explore personal experiences of growing up as a gay teenager in Grenada,” reads Frank’s statement, “the ridiculous; sexual assault; trauma”.

More broadly, however, the film explores “the emotional chasm (the chasm) that is the backbone of these personal and collective narratives of loss, grief, displacement and longing – the narratives of diasporas and the experience of ‘exile”. In this way, Frank weaves a dense narrative about the tragic legacy of colonialism, probing the depths of its depredations and cruelties to, in a sense, explain how the inhumanities of colonialism – and the conflicted relational landscape they left in their wake – are at least partly responsible for the chasm between father and son (as well as other broken bonds of diaspora peoples).

Whatever bond there was between her mother and father has long since been severed by the start of the film. Antoinette is alone in the face of the affection that her husband, Nelson, refuses her and of which he also deprives their son, James. Mother and son bond in their common alienation, not always appropriately; James is not only Antoinette’s offspring, but also her “girlfriend”, her emotional (not sexual) lover and confidante.

Frank quotes Derek Walcott’s A Far Cry from Africa (published 1962): “I who am poisoned by the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, split to the vein? It describes James’s dilemma, but also, in Walcott’s references, British colonialism in Africa. (Elsewhere, Frank also quotes VS Naipaul, another keen observer of the devastations of colonialism.)

There is a scene that painfully illustrates the sterility of this dysfunctional triad, when James and Antoinette are sipping tea and confiding in the garden. Nelson looks at them both with unvarnished antipathy, walks past them and sits alone, smoking on a porch, silent and frowning. Her insensitivity sends shivers down her spine.

Billy Gerard Frank, “Second Eulogy: Mind The Gap (Towards A Destiny. NO.3)”, 2019 Image courtesy of Billy Gerard Frank/Elizabeth Moss Galleries

At another point, La Diablesse (or Ladjablès), a mysterious demonic figure from Caribbean folklore, drags James into a ceremony venerating the powerful and violent Yoruba orisha, Shango. There he is molested by a man participating in the ritual. This scene illustrates the subtle layering of Frank’s memory into larger diaspora themes.

It’s not a literal recreation of Frank’s own assault, but it tells it through the lens of a Yoruba religion practiced among Africans brought to the Caribbean during the Atlantic slave trade. Frank is not content to describe this human commerce as simply commerce between blacks and whites. It was a much more complicated phenomenon in which certain Africans themselves were complicit. Worship of the warmonger Shango had its very dark side, as we see in the film’s harrowing climax, when Nelson forces James into a Shango ritual and baptism involving hot coals and whips with blood-soaked palm fronds. goat, the goal being to exorcise the boy of his homosexuality.

The video, which Frank wrote and directed, is hard to watch. Film stills surround the gallery, along with a sculpture of a scorched church prayer book and a collage canvas including a poignant letter he wrote to his father before his death. At the base of the latter is a suitcase containing other letters that viewers are encouraged to peruse. It is a searing experience, and one that will affect you deeply for weeks, if not lifetimes, to come.

Daniel Minter, “A Quiet Reach #2”, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 20″ Image courtesy of Dowling Walsh

“Daniel Minter: A Other Crossing”, on which Dowling Walsh collaborated with Minter Gallery of Portland, Greenhut, focuses primarily on a historical crime so horribly racist that it was not widely known, let alone recognized, for a century after it was perpetrated. It was the forced displacement of an entire mestizo community from the island of Malaga, off the coast of Phippsburg, in 1911.

Until then, the locals had enjoyed a thriving fishing, trading, and laundering community for local stations, and some of its residents also worked at those stations. They had a deep, even mystical connection with the sea, the earth and the sky, and lived peacefully. But following Jim Crow’s laws and Francis Galton’s theory of eugenics (the deformed and scientifically unsubstantiated bastard child of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution), the governor of Maine at the time , Frederick Plaisted, ordered the removal of all members of the community. He provided no support for their relocation and even had graves dug and reburied in Pownal to warn against any thought of returning.

A “public” apology was finally made in 2010, but without informing the descendants of these slandered families who, before their expulsion, were accused in the local newspapers of engaging in immoral and deviant acts and of forcing children with horns to live in tunnels. Minter has been creating work about the incident for years, as has Theaster Gates, who used it as the starting point for “Amalgam,” a project that was exhibited at the Tate Museum in London in 2019-20.

Over the years, Minter has developed a personal iconography to tell the story of Malaga. The paintings are full of symbolism. Very present in several are boats, which hang at the top of the canvas above the heads of his subjects. This obviously refers to the Middle Passage, the involuntary capture, transport and enslavement of Africans across the Atlantic. But it also represents the ramifications of this unholy predation, which persists today, affecting the entire global community. It’s a legacy that’s slowly beginning to be felt among white people, but has been evident to people of color for centuries.

The appearance of stirrups floating in the middle of the paintings, also above the heads of his subjects, symbolizes the removal of brown and black people from their lands and ways of life. Indeed, they are disturbing presences, posed on his characters, ready to tear them away from their native environment and insert them into an unjust servitude.

The clothing of his characters is made up of patterns that emphasize their links with natural elements: fish, birds, turtles, vegetation, boats, etc. There are also buttons. Specifically, they refer to women who laundered for local resorts, who washed clothes on the shore. To this day, the ebb and flow of the sea uncovers pearls on Malaga beach.

Daniel Minter, “A Quiet Reach #8”, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 12″ Image courtesy of Dowling Walsh

On a deeper level, however, the buttons represent connection, an object that has been touched by both wearer and washer, thus uniting them. I would also venture to say that they can be metaphors for what binds the community – the generations of Malaga themselves, but also the human community to these people and, ultimately, to all sentient beings.

The Málaga Island’s mixed-race heritage is depicted in paintings such as “A Quiet Reach #8”, where a central figure’s complexion changes from brown to white. This is one of my favorite paintings in the show due to its sense of nature centered mysticism and timelessness. It has a palpable melancholy, but a power and transcendence that also speaks of resilience and the eternal preciousness of the human spirit.

There are also multimedia works that complement these paintings, in particular “Governor’s Tea”, his cracked and littered teacups depicting the broken promises of Governor Plaisted’s visit, where he pledged not to displace residents. Unfortunately, it is now a familiar story.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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