hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture June 2018


Connecting the threads of history

Photos, music play roles as artist explores African diaspora


In Other Worlds Worlds,2011 Radcliffe Bailey

In “Other Worlds Worlds” (2011), the artist Radcliffe Bailey puts the label from an album by jazz composer Sun Ra at the center of a mechanical model of the solar system. The work is among 40 pieces by Bailey that are on view as part of the exhibition “Travelogue” at The School in Kinderhook. Copyright Radcliffe Bailey, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


Contributing writer


Radcliffe Bailey’s art places cultural and personal history on a timeline by diving into the hard facts – and also into creative properties and unsolvable mysteries.

Bailey’s work is featured in “Travelogue,” a show that opened last month and runs until Oct. 6 at The School in Kinderhook. The gallery opened in 2014 in a repurposed 30,000-square-foot former elementary school.

To celebrate its fourth anniversary, The School has invited several artists to take part in the show, which highlights Bailey in the main gallery space with 40 pieces on display.

The works by Bailey were created over a 16-year period, beginning in 2002, and use family photographs and found objects as part of their sculptural images. They connect Bailey’s personal history with the wider narratives of the African diaspora, using undercurrents of DNA and music.
Bailey’s work brings together different aspects of these threads to create contemplation of the different perspectives the history offers.

His “Windward Coast – West Coast Slave Trade” (2009-2011) incorporates piano keys into its depiction of a brutal ocean surface that memorializes black lives lost along the passage across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves.

With “Other Worlds Worlds” (2011), Bailey brings the jazz composer and bandleader Sun Ra into the mix, using a label from a Sun Ra album as the center of a mechanical model of the solar system. (Space travel was a recurring theme in Sun Ra’s work, including in his early 1970s film and soundtrack, “Space is the Place.”)

Often Bailey incorporates images of his own ancestors, many of them remaining unidentified by Bailey or his family, and places them in a swirl of other historical factors in the black experience. In this way, all history is personal history.


From north to south
Bailey works out of Atlanta, but he was born in New Jersey. His parents moved south in 1972, when he was 4.

Bailey’s family had arrived in New Jersey a century before through the Underground Railroad. They never made it to Canada, instead meeting a group of Quakers and creating a township in the state.

It’s this connection to the famed escape route from slavery, as well as his father’s work as a railroad engineer, that led Bailey to include train tracks in many of his works.

“Growing up in New Jersey was very much like country,” Bailey said. “My father’s father farmed asparagus. Then coming to Atlanta was more of a city -- and always thought of as the opposite. You look at the photographs, and people will often draw a relationship to the photographs that I use as coming from the South, but they were coming from the North.”

Bailey said his parents’ choice of Atlanta was an intentional cultural one that led to his future as an artist. In New Jersey, they were surrounded by family. In Atlanta, they had no one immediate, but there was a booming African American culture that they could become part of, rather than watching at a distance.

“It was really about African American presence in Atlanta: African American mayors, the city where King grew up, the civil rights movement,” Bailey said. “Atlanta was divided between black and white. All my schools were predominantly African American schools until I went to college. I knew my mother and father had that in their mind, that they wanted us to grow up in that kind of environment -- a city where there were black businesses. We had no family members here at all.”
There was also art. Bailey says that starting in the 1970s, Atlanta presented numerous opportunities for him to view the work of black artists, work that previously had been hard to find in Southern cultural institutions.

Guided by his mother and his aunt, Bailey absorbed the art he saw. As a kid, this translated into working with his hands — fixing cars with his dad and spending summers with his grandfather making various objects. Bailey also took some classes at the museums he frequented.
His aptitude for creative arts led him to major in graphic design at the Atlanta College of Art after being encouraged by a teacher who saw that field as a good way for him to make money.

Bailey had other ideas.
“Within the first semester, I changed my major quickly, and I went into sculpture,” he said. “I was somewhere in between sculpture and painting.”


Photos link personal, historical
Bailey said his interest in working with different materials led him through various departments to experiment. The subject matter of his work came to him in the last two years of school, when his grandmother presented him with a gift.

“My grandmother gave me an old family photo album, and I never really knew what to do with it,” Bailey said. “She knew that I was going to school for art, and she wanted to give that information to me. They were early old tintypes of our family members from up north to south. Ninety percent of them we did not know anything about. I felt as if I had a mission to deal with these photographs.”

Bailey began to enlarge the images and use them in his mixed-media pieces.
“It was a way I could actually use a photograph to hold people’s attention,” he said. “And part of it was I was always interested in them, because they were close to me, and I was interested in communicating with people. There was another side of me that was interested in painting in a more abstract way or working in a way that wasn’t completely tangible. I find I tried to marry the two of those worlds.”

In some ways, using his old family photos gave the people in them identities that had previously been impossible to uncover. Bailey describes the personalities as similar to deities rather than humans.

“There’s this gentleman in a photograph, he has a top hat, and for me he has this kind of image of more like a trickster,” Bailey said. “But I would also connect him to Eshu, who is a Yoruba deity that was a person who was more like a trickster and sat at the crossroads. Those kinds of relationships with the photographs, they have an identity for me.”


Time distilled through music
Music also began to enter as a thread through his creations. Bailey turned to his favorites, often the musicians he listened to while creating work -- John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler -- as well as classical sounds and music from around the world, and particularly from Mali, to form what Bailey describes as “the glue.”

“I think music is my first form of DNA,” Bailey said. “And not knowing my makeup besides the stories and the family history, and not knowing beyond a certain point, music was what took me back. It’s hard to explain. Before there was DNA, before there was a trace of DNA, music for me was the first way of getting there.”

Music often manifests itself in Bailey’s work in the form of piano keyboards, but music is also a springboard to other forms of sound that shape the historical narrative he seeks to capture in his images.

“I’m referencing sounds of trains, sounds of insects, sounds of the ocean,” Bailey said. “It’s almost like a timeline. Some of it’s telling a story, my history, my family’s history, or the bigger sense of African Americans, Africans in this country, but also just human, just being a human being and experiencing certain sounds for the first time. Sometimes it is a timeline; sometimes it starts in the middle, and sometimes in the beginning.”

Music is a grouping of sounds into a logical order, just as Bailey’s creations are attempts to bring together parts of the African diaspora -- historical elements, cultural elements, familial elements -- into one structure that illustrates the connections and tries to make some sense of them.

Bailey looks back in order to look forward, and he places himself at the center of these sprawling investigations. The common denominator in all these parts is Radcliffe Bailey himself.

“It’s all about a love for myself, a focus on me and where I sit in the world; those that are around me, where they sit.”