Just in time for Juneteenth and only two blocks away from where Union General Gordon Granger announced the enforcement of the end of slavery on June 19, 1865, the Galveston Arts Center has mounted a new exhibit exploring the resistance to slavery and the lasting effects on black culture in Houston — mainly Houston's disappearing Third Ward.
Rappers, R&B singers, African drums, old slave photos and signage trumpeting the greatness of MacGregor Park make up the collaborative exhibit “Two & 1/2 Years: A Visual Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth” by multi-media artists Robert Hodge and Tierney Malone.
It’s not an in-your-face indictment of the atrocities of slavery as much as it’s a reminder of black beauty and black excellence in defiance of oppression.
And fitting, when you realize that when Granger read those words he was enforcing what President Abraham Lincoln had already made law more than two year earlier — the end of slavery. There were still 250,000 people enslaved in Texas.
The collections of works on display are the visual representation of a musical antecedent, the jazz and hip-hop album Two & 1/2 Years: A Musical Celebration of Juneteenth. Shared with audiences since last year, the album has its proper release on June 19.
Both the musical component and the multi-media aspect are meant to reach a new generation to help acknowledge the sacrifices of the ancestors and the struggle that exists today.The paintings and collages do so with striking ferocity.
The musical theme looms over the exhibit with the introductory piece, a collection of 36 record covers and sleeves with words like “wake,” “soul,” “pray,” and “die” stenciled throughout.
In the middle of the gallery is a sculpture by Hodge outfitted with Mardi Gras feathers and found objects like a drum and car speaker. It’s constructed in a way to evoke a traditional African drum, a callback to the ancestors. Etched into the drum are the words “What it is you know we know/ What it is they know Ya’ll know/ What it is/ You don’t know?/ Here it is."
Between the Devil and the Deep offers an upside-down Pope John Paul II with Shaft ready to swing into action right next to him. It’s a juxtaposition of black celebrities, musicians and the Virgin Mary.
The collages speak to the collective conscience of entertainment and even the appropriation of black culture, such as the collage work entitled Elvis Presley Ain’t Got No Soul, Bo Diddley is Rock n’ Roll. In another collage, a sexy-as-all-hell Aretha Franklin with some striking cleavage stares right at you. A white celebrity grins from below, his mouth covered.
But the exhibit also doesn’t want people to forget slavery’s atrocities. There’s an American flag covered with black tar, above it a sign reading, “Protect” and below “Your Magic.”
Next to it is the image of the slave ship with black bodies suffocatingly packed in neat rows, but this one the shape of a seed. Southern Seed is a 2012 work by Hodge that brings it all home.
Tierney Malone, who Hodge has credited with being a mentor, created a fantastic mural that hearkens back to the Third Ward glory days, with reminders of local electro rap hit "MacGregor Park" by the L.A. Rapper and tennis great Zina Garrison.
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Malone is a California transplant who has called Houston home for many years, while Hodge grew up a part of Houston’s black experience, having developed his cultural eye growing up in the Third Ward and graduating from HSPVA (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts) in 1998.
His works have traveled the globe and he returns all of that collected experience to comment on the history of black folks through the lens of Galveston.
Juneteenth as a proper holiday is on the come-up, too, gaining more recognition throughout the country. It’s no longer a Southern thing, and although people were coming into the gallery asking “What is Juneteenth, anyway,” the exhibit might not answer that question directly, but it’s a strong illustration of what it represents.
“Two & 1/2 Years: A Visual Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth” continues through July 9 at the Galveston Arts Center, Galveston, 2127 Strand. For information call 409-763-2403 or visit galvestonartscenter.org