"The stars are beautiful, So the eyes of my people ... Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people." — from "My People," Langston Hughes
"A sheriff's deputy arrested three youths early yesterday after a cursing and shooting incident near 'Voodoo Village' in southwest Shelby County. ... The name 'Voodoo Village' has been given to the area because of figures and symbols in the yard of Wash Harris. ... He calls his home St. Paul's Spiritual Temple." — The Commercial Appeal, 1965
Soul. Now there's a word for you.
In the most enduring human traditions, it's regarded as an animating breath connecting man with God and making the two ideas, somehow, responsible for each other. Aristotle defined soul as purpose distilled. It's a synonym for bare essence, the living spark of human emotion. In the last half of the 20th century, the word became effective shorthand for all things black and strong — a one-stroke account of the African diaspora and the ongoing struggle for survival, freedom, identity, equality, and respect.
Soul. It's Southern cooking under the influence of Afro-Caribbean slave culture. It's the sweet fusion of urban pop, dirty blues, and down-home gospel. And when we say soul in the same breath as Memphis, it's usually to describe this tender nexus of struggle, sound, and sustenance.
The Brooks Museum's "The Soul of a City" is an ambitious project, bringing together more than 100 works by artists known and new, from a multitude of public, private, and even secret Memphis-area collections. Living up to its subtitle — "Memphis Collects African American Art" — "The Soul of a City" touches on expected tropes like music, religion, and the civil rights movement. Then it digs a little deeper, chipping away at distinctions between fine and folk art, examining powerful legacies, and sharing widely misunderstood artifacts of private faith in a public, secular context.
"It's become this huge thing," says Brooks' chief curator Marina Pacini, who spent three years assembling "The Soul of a City." "Not very many shows take up all five galleries," she says.
"The Soul of a City" showcases established artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Sam Gilliam, and Jacob Lawrence alongside up-and-comers like sculptor Glenn Ligon, self-taught artists like blind scarecrow builder Hawkins Bouldin, and category-defying talents like Thornton Dial and quilter Loretta Pettway. The exhibit taps deep wells of shared experience by grouping varied works, like members of a widely scattered family sharing stories at a reunion.
"The show is fantastic," Elliot Perry says. "You can really see the wide range of people in Memphis who are collecting art. And there are good pieces, too, from local, regional, and national artists."
The former Memphis State point guard, who played in the NBA for the Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, and Memphis Grizzlies, hadn't been meaningfully exposed to art until 1996, when NBA coach Darrell Walker shared an art book with him on a flight to Japan. Perry has since become a serious and scholarly collector, with an eye for modern and contemporary work. A diverse selection of pieces from his collection creates a kind of spine running through "The Soul of a City" exhibit.
"I want my collection to be as much transformative as informative," says Perry, who did a self-described "180-degree turn" in 2007 and now only collects contemporary work by living artists.
"I want people to see that artists of African-American descent are doing a wide range of work. And conceptual work like Theaster Gates. A hundred years from now, people can see African-American artists looking at what's going on in the culture right now."
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by a mahogany sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett titled Black Unity. As you walk around the piece, it changes from a pair of comforting faces into a fist. It's not a bad metaphor for a show that brings together a wide range of sensibilities and forcefully makes them work together.
To the right of Black Unity hangs an untitled red, white, and green collage by Romare Bearden made for Judge D'Army Bailey. Bearden, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts just before he died in 1988, had been an important figure to Bailey because of the artist's contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. The two men got to know one another when Bailey served on the Berkeley (California) City Council, and Bearden was commissioned to produce a mural for council chambers.
In the opposite corner hangs Purvis Young's The Eyes Say It Unto the Peoples, a riveting piece made by an unschooled artist using available materials. In the early 1970s, Young decorated a rundown stretch of Goodbread Alley in Miami with murals painted on salvaged board. The Eyes Say It Unto the Peoples, from that original cobbled-together set of paintings, considers the struggles of Florida's Afro-Caribbean community living under the scrutiny of a white establishment.
The "peoples" in Young's painting are bound to their neighborhoods with chains, although trains and trucks suggest the possibility of escape. A portion of the board remains unpainted from where it had originally been overlapped by another painting.
The opening gallery at the Brooks also features examples of fashion and The Upper Room, a print by muralist John Biggers, who is described as an African-American Diego Rivera. It only hints at the exhibit's beautiful, bold, and sometimes jarring images that lie in store.
Pacini divided the exhibit into categories: genre work, portraiture, abstraction, religion, music, still life, and civil rights. Each section has its share of stars and noteworthy supporting players.
Some of the exhibit's most thrilling surprises are tucked away in their own private mini-gallery. These previously unexhibited objects were obtained from St. Paul's Spiritual Holy Temple, a Masonically inspired visionary art landscape in Southwest Memphis. They have been given a more private space out of respect, since they were designed to have a spiritual function and never intended to be experienced as individual works of art.
St. Paul's Temple, known locally for years as "Voodoo Village," has fallen into disrepair due to exposure and vandalism. It consists of several small, colorfully painted buildings, mysterious sculptural elements such as crosses riddled with nails, and wondrous constructions that look like huge propellers or surreal machines made from painted wood. Wash Harris, a self-ordained Baptist minister, developed the compound as a church and center for spiritual healing in the mid-1950s. In 1960, he was joined in his labors by his son and namesake Washington "Mook" Harris, who carries on the family tradition.
St. Paul's Temple was given its derogatory local moniker by outsiders who didn't understand Wash Harris' visionary gift. The misleading nickname was perpetuated by local media, prompting generations of thrill-seekers, souvenir hunters, and armed hell-raisers to make nocturnal visits to the property, driving the church deeper and deeper into isolation.
Efforts to demystify the temple and establish it as a community treasure have met with obstacles. For Mook Harris, the memories of trespassers cursing and firing guns during his father's Sunday services are still fresh. Mistrust runs deep, and the family has been reluctant to surrender its privacy.
Pacini says that although the temple is still not open to the public, she was lucky to have asked at a time when the family is reconsidering its place in the community and its responsibility to maintain the property and its structures.
The handful of sculptures on loan to the Brooks from the temple includes a small, colorfully imagined ram adorned with red stars and long curling wooden horns and a detailed log and crosscut saw painted fire-engine red.
Harris is reluctant to explain what the pieces mean. "You have to figure that out for yourself," he says, allowing that they were "built for the future to help people discover the right way to go."
Photographer Carrie Mae Weems has always been interested in the past and in the idea of power and its consequences. Her epic work, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, a visual poem about slavery and an urge to anthropologically document African Americans out of their humanity, can easily dominate a room. In "The Soul of a City," it has stiff competition from works by emerging artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Demetrius Oliver, and by one, small, primitive history of American political assassination utilizing real bullets.
Valerie Maynard's fingerprint-laden bust of an African-American man, from the Bryan Randolph collection, was created when Maynard turned to making art to raise money for her falsely imprisoned brother's legal defense. Names of the prisons where he was housed are carved deep into one shoulder. After decades behind bars, her brother was exonerated with help from the Innocence Project.
Absolut Power by Hank Willis Thomas is an advertising lightbox bearing the easily recognized profile of an Absolut Vodka bottle. Only this time the famous bottle has been packed like a slave ship full of human cargo.
"He's was asking what it means to be branded," Elliot Perry says.
Till, Demetrius Oliver's photograph of a young boy whose face has been sculpted with chocolate cake frosting, gains power from its proximity to civil rights photographer Ernest Withers' booklets chronicling the trial that followed the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, who was only 14 when he was brutally beaten and shot for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Pacini says the museum docents initially responded negatively to the graphic implications of the Till photograph, but it has since become a hot discussion topic.
"These are conversations I want to have," Perry says. "I think that when people think of art, particularly in my own community, they think about aesthetic beauty. There are some things that are grotesque that can be so beautiful. It's crazy."
Aesthetic beauty is important to Perry, but he also values narrative and the ability to visit an artist's studio to talk and understand what they are doing. The last pieces showcased in "The Soul of a City" are all contemporary and include a manufactured religious artifact with Nat Turner's face appearing in a water stain, a quilt made of combs, and a mirror with the words "Fly Away" spray-painted on it and reflecting in reverse on the floor. Theaster Gates' massive, throne-like shoeshine stand bathes in the neon glow of Glenn Ligon's illuminated sculpture Negro Sunshine.
Gates is a Chicago-based innovator whose art is informed by his degree in urban planning.
"Theaster Gates is an amazing person," Perry says. "The shoeshine stand really jumped out at me. He's asking questions about who's shining shoes and who's getting their shoes shined. And it's the same. People have sent their kids off to college from shining shoes at stands like this."
Pacini says she is especially proud to work against perceptions and reconsider art collecting as something anybody can do. By assembling works acquired by newbie collectors on a budget, folk collectors on a mission, and serious collectors with means and access, the idea of building a collection becomes attractive and accessible.
"The Soul of a City: Memphis Collects African American Art" is at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through September 2nd.
It Takes a Village
Wash "Mook" Harris talks about growing up at St. Paul's Spiritual Holy Temple.
The word "voodoo" makes Washington James Harris cringe, and when he has to speak it, he spits it out like a piece of rotten meat. Fifty years ago, the church and center for spiritual healing created by his Baptist father was nicknamed "Voodoo Village" by people who didn't understand the Harris family or the visionary art landscape they had created. The name stuck, making Harris' corner of Southwest Memphis a destination for vandals and thrill-seekers.
Today, Harris finds himself at a crossroads — wondering how to preserve both his privacy and the work he and his father began in 1960. Every time his story is told, more people show up on his property looking to take away a memory or perhaps something more substantial.
Memphis Flyer: The Brooks exhibit showcasing your work is called "The Soul of a City." How do you define soul?
Wash Harris: What soul means to me is the religious part, the eternal part. Everybody has a soul, and when you die, the good Lord takes your soul back.
How old were you when your father said, "We're going to build this temple.
" We built it all together. How old are you in the eighth grade? I might have been younger than that. I may have been 10 or 12. We started in the 1960s.
These pieces you've loaned to the Brooks aren't meant to be experienced as objects of art. Was it hard for you to let someone else hold on to these pieces? To let people look at them as beautiful objects?
Yes, it was. It really was.
How do you describe the pieces?
I can't tell you what that means or what it stands for. All this work. Whatever you see down here. All this stuff has something to do with the Bible and under the Masonic organization. The good Lord give my old man the gift to build this place. He was the founder, and I was the co-founder.
So the creative urge and the religious calling are one and the same?
I think that's right.
Your father had a gift. People would come to him from far away for help and advice. How did you process that as a child?
I don't say it was strange, I'd say it was natural, because God gave him the gift. God gave me a gift, and God gave you a gift too. God doesn't give everybody the same gift. If you've got a gift to fly an airplane, I've got a gift to ride a horse. Now, I can't fly an airplane, but you might not can ride a horse either.
You've carried on the family traditions?
Yes. I try to keep it up. And I need a lot of help and money to do it. That's what I need to focus on doing. I've got a lot of stuff that needs to be redone.
People haven't always understood or respected what you do. Can you talk about that a little?
They've put my stuff all on the Internet. Called it Voodoo Village. Well, the name of it is St. Paul's Spiritual Holy Temple. Anytime you've got something that you don't know nothing about, then you need to ask the people that have got it.
And every time you turn around, somebody want to write something. But they don't write the truth. They wrote whatever they wanted to write. Name this place whatever they want to name it. And then everybody's curious again.
If you're curious, you should come down here and bring me some money to fix the place up. This place ain't nothing to be played with. Ain't no voodoo here. Never been and never will be. All that shit the newspaper wrote up ain't nothing but a bunch of lies. Once a lie starts rolling, it keeps on rolling, because people will believe a lie before they believe the truth.
And it's the lies about voodoo that bring most people out to the temple?
I've been having trouble ever since me and my old man built this place. Work all day, sometimes half the night, sometimes all night with saws, knives, whatever you can cut on wood with. People shot all over my place. Built fires all over my place. I'm tired of this mess. I haven't had a good night's rest in my own home since me and my old man started this place. That's the exact truth.
Do you only maintain the older pieces or are you building new work?
I've got some new stuff that I need to do, but I've got to get the money to fix up the old stuff before I can fix the new.
They tear up my stuff, they do. Take my stuff away. Leave it laying out by the side of the road. Every time you turn around, somebody trying to get in. Or peeping. Every place I've got, they've done shot in it. I'm tired of that. I had a dog, and somebody even drove up to the fence and shot my dog.
Why do you think they're afraid?
If you're afraid of this here, then you're afraid of the Holy Bible. That's where it all comes from. ... I'm a high-degree Mason. This place has been here this long. It needs to be on the National Register. I shouldn't be bothered here no kind of way.