At the entrance to multidisciplinary artist Adrian Burrell’s first-ever solo show, currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose, in California, hangs a piece titled Modernity Blues, a flat section of wood crating festooned with azure neon tubing that spells out the exhibition title, “Sugarcane & Lightning pt. 3,” and fills the gallery with its hue. (The implied parts one and two are, respectively, Burrell’s ongoing archival research into his Black ancestors’ struggles in the American South, and a forthcoming book detailing his discoveries.) Dated 2022, like all the works included, this wall panel bears a stencil specifying a cargo limit of 63,400 pounds—a strong hint that the freightage Burrell hopes to convey is enormous.
Further along the same wall hangs family ties, a ring of nine resin masks in varying shades of blue, from a lilting sky hue to cobalt, all modeled on members of the artist’s family. The masks are positioned above several pieces of correspondence framed in white-painted wood. The letters are copies of the originals that have been digitized and preserved by local archives in Louisiana, where part of Burrell’s family still resides. In one set of documents, dated 1931-32, Mrs. Anthony Gerard of Loreauville, Louisiana, petitions the pension board in Baton Rouge on behalf of an ancestor of Burrell’s, a formerly enslaved woman then “over a hundred years old.” She was the wife of Zenon Simon, also formerly enslaved, who died “without ever having received any pension or reward from his slavery.” One letter ends: “I assure you if she can obtain any pension as reward it would be highly appreciated, as she is very poor old and crippled. She and her old husband have been our life long neighbors and were good darkies.” Even this faltering attempt to lift someone up is burdened with disdain.
By now it’s clear that Burrell’s opening work references the Blues tradition, immersing visitors in the atmosphere of the music created by Black people to express the deep sorrow and despair that have historically attended our social and political circumstances in this nation. Yes, all this cargo is heavy.
Burrell’s film The Saints Step in Kongo Time, shown in an alcove behind a purple curtain, adds even more tone. One hears Black men—again, the artist’s family members—telling how they survived various threats to their lives. One extended scene centers on his cousin Mico, sitting in a parked car with vivid scars tracing his head from ear to ear, as he describes being shot multiple times. A surgeon once had to peel the skin of his face from his skull in order to extract the bullet.
The most compelling part of the exhibition, this film follows no chronology, because, as Burrell told me, “Kongo time consists of the cycle of repetition of catastrophe and fugitivity.” The artist affirms this in voiceover: “My aunt used to say, ‘It’s from the womb to the tomb with us. This blood can’t be washed away.’” The film also features short vignettes that focus on common rituals: attending church, gathering around a neighborhood ice cream truck, driving a car in donuts in a parking lot, grieving at funerals. All the scenes are joined in a deeply moving lyricism that reminds me of Arthur Jafa’s montage of Black life Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016).
But Burrell injects a graceful subplot, rendering himself a kind of Magical Realist character dressed in white trousers, black shoes tied together over his shoulder, sometimes running while holding several suitcases in his hands. This avatar of the artist makes it out of the cane fields and the grueling labor of extracting sugar and reaches a clearing, where he draws a large chalk circle. Whirling, he dances inside it, then runs in circles, calling on powers beyond himself, which seem to enter into and levitate his body. His long locks hanging, his hands serenely clasped over his belly, his eyes closed, he has, in the words of poet Richard Wilbur, “won for once over the world’s weight.”
Ultimately, though, the show feels ambivalent. While it evokes the weight of a horrific and ongoing history, its pervasive blue is a floating signifier. The color is a medium for the collective grief, dismay and remorse that the artist carries. Yet it is also the kind of blue he likely finds when looking up into the sky at the break of day.
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