Visual Arts

Portraits of Southern Life With a Side of History

Learn a bit of American history while enjoying some vibrant, thought-provoking artwork at Najee Dorsey’s Leaving Mississippi – Reflections on Heroes and Folklore exhibit, on display now at the Houston Museum of African American Culture.

The exhibit includes a small recreation of an old bus station, complete with tattered suitcases, chairs, a glass exit door and a Greyhound bus schedule. The theme of leaving behind something familiar and taking a chance on a better future is repeated in the mixed media collages of people who represent historical or autobiographical events.

The story behind Dear Dangerfield is heart-wrenching, with the words from a woman’s letter to her husband framing the piece. Dangerfield Newby’s wife was a slave and, while she waited for him to find the money to buy her out, she wrote of her fears of it already being too late; her letter from 1859 was later found on her husband’s body. Newby was the first of John Brown’s raiders to die at Harpers Ferry, Virginia; after he was killed his limbs were amputated and his body left for the hogs.

Claudette Colvin, the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, is portrayed as a sad-faced teenager with glasses in B4-Rosa: Here I Stand. The innocent girl with an inquisitive look stares from the canvas against a blood red sky anchored by blue, purple and green vegetation. Her case never received the publicity of Rosa Parks, who was arrested 9 months later and became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

The same saturated colors are repeated in Road Less Traveled, a self-portrait of the artist as a young boy against a cobalt blue background, the red tricycle serving as a symbol of the travel which must occur for the artist to progress.

The famous story of blues musician Robert Johnson, who left Mississippi and, according to legend, made a pact with the devil to attain his unique guitar sound, serves as inspiration for Leaving Mississippi, paralleling the artist’s own journey out of Blytheville, Arkansas to Atlanta, Georgia.

RD’s Backroom is a serigraph of a gaming hall from Dorsey’s hometown. Colorful boxes of primary colors form a backdrop for a grown man, struggling with his need to gamble, and the young shoe shine boy; both figures representing the artist at different times in his life.

In the panoramic digital collage, Deep Down In The Mississippi Delta, the anonymous banjo player stands at his own personal crossroads in an imaginary, rural landscape set in fantastic, dreamlike colors.

The collection includes a video of Dorsey’s recent Resistance series (portraits of those who have fought against oppressors by using their voices and bodies), a quilt made of fabric scraps and flattened bottle caps, an antique stove and banjo, and an auditory soundtrack that complements the visual components of the exhibit.

Leaving Mississippi – Reflections on Heroes and Folklore continues through July 12, at Houston Museum of African American Culture, 4807 Caroline, open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., 713-526-1015,

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney