Hold These Truths

November 13, 2017 - March 14, 2018

NLE Lab: Southeast Queens Biennial

February 9 - April 21, 2018

Radcliffe Bailey


Windward Coast, 2007–2014 
Piano keys, plaster bust and glitter. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Providing a powerful invocation of the past, Radcliffe Bailey’s work encodes history through a complex layering of historical references.  Maroons, the title of his series from which these pieces derive, alludes to the migratory communities of runaway slaves that occupy a now mythic place within African American history and its folkloric traditions. This thematic of dislocation is explicitly foregrounded in the artist’s ambitiously scaled installation Windward Coast (2009-2011). Consisting of a fragmented accumulation of piano keys, Bailey’s undulating expanse of wood depicts the traumatic moment of the middle passage within the African diaspora, emblematizing the struggle of the countless millions forced to make the Atlantic crossing. Piled one on top of another, the un-individuated mass of spindly keys recalls the press of bodies that formed the slave-ships’ dehumanized cargo. Resembling a collection of skeletal shards or driftwood tossed and piled together, at its midst the head of a man breaks the installation’s surface—a swimmer, or perhaps a lone survivor. Here too, Bailey’s depiction of the heroic conflict between man and nature—a solitary figure battling the sea—serves as a metaphor for the enormity of human struggle presented by slavery and the Atlantic diaspora. Allusions to more recent disasters, notably Hurricane Katrina and the repercussions of its aftermath, also lurk beneath the surface; so too the palpable and disquieting sense that these familiar problems—racial injustice and social inequality—persist to this day.  

Pensive, 2013
Bronze and rough-sawn fir logs. 58 x 39 ¼ x 45 ¼ inches. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Depicting the venerable likeness of W.E.B. du Bois, a key figure in the formation of the Harlem Renaissance, Bailey’s Pensive (2013) appropriates the introspective pose of Rodin’s The Thinker in salute to du Bois’ own intellectual influence. Cast in bronze and seated on a plinth of four squarely sawn fir logs, Bailey’s life-size sculpture offers a meditation on du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness”, articulated in his seminal text The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In it, the author reflects on the duality of African American identity, poetically describing the condition of black experience in terms of a quasi-disembodied sense of seeing oneself always through the eyes of others. Presented here in Sugar Hill, the historic cradle of Harlem’s cultural blossoming in the 1920s and 30s, Bailey’s sculpture is particularly apt. Greeting visitors as they first enter the exhibition, du Bois’ benevolent presence serves then as a reminder of the neighborhood’s fertile past, pointing at the same time to the successive waves of migration, displacement and renewal that continue to shape the community today.


Fourth Ward, 2013
Wooden door with gold leaf, bottle caps, and wooden base. 89 x 32 x 13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

The Fourth Ward in Houston, also referred to as Freedmen's Town, was home to one of that city's historic African American communities. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was the center of black cultural and professional life in the city. By the early twentieth century, much like Sugar Hill, it housed prominent educational institutions and the majority of the city’s black physicians and attorneys, while at night its bars and night spots attracted whites and blacks who came to hear great blues and jazz musicians. But from the 1930’s onwards, the land was rapidly appropriated for commercial development, and by the 1980’s very little remained of this historic black enclave.  

The door on view was from one of the shotgun houses from Project Row Houses, founded by Rick Lowe. They were termed shotgun houses because, as it was said, a bullet fired through the front door would pass through the back door without encountering an inner wall—so small were these houses. The mission of Project Row Houses is to catalyze the transformation of community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture. The door which Bailey gilded on the front side could be seen as a symbol of this transformative power of art. To the original door, Bailey attached a traditional door handle and lock from Mali (found in a market in Paris), and on the unrenovated reverse of the door, a necklace of bottle caps is hung, invoking traditional folk or African dance. 

Pictured: Pensive, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery; Windward Coast, photo by Whitney Browne.