by Dr. Sara Hollis

The works of Radcliffe Bailey currently at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in the exhibition, Radcliffe Bailey: Recent Works, express the importance of their themes in both scale and complexity. Populating the entire first floor of the CAC, there are both two- dimensional works as well as sculptural installation pieces.

Bailey’s work created a crackle of excitement among the huge crowd that attended the opening of the exhibition drawn both from the New Orleans arts and cultural communities as well as visitors to the city. He had collaborated with locals to produce one of the sculptures using discarded brass instruments as his medium. Michelle Jean-Pierre, director of the Ellis Marsalis Center in the Musicians Village, says he had contacted her to find such instruments with which to create the piece, “If Bells Could Talk”, accompanied by music by Hannibal Lokumbe, which was installed to great effect in the circular gallery surrounded by the spiral ramp leading to the second floor of the CAC so the work can be viewed not only from the level of the floor, but then looked down upon from the ramp.
Another installation/sculpture is “Windward Coast” formed of uncountable piano keys and a bust seen as floating in the sea of keys. He was able to acquire the keys from a business in Atlanta that recycled old piano parts. The image is of one immersed in a sea of remembered music.

Jennifer Williams, director of the McKenna Museum of African American Art, attended the opening and identified that piece as her favorite in the exhibition. She especially liked the space it occupies in the exhibit at the CAC where it can be seen through the big windows from the outside as well as from the inside. She and Mariana Sheppard, manager of Education and Public Programs at the CAC, will be giving a Gallery Talk at 2 p.m. April 19 at the CAC.

Bailey often combines images of cultural history with the history of the Atlantic slave trade through images from African art and healing rituals as well as musical development along the way. A huge canvas which appears from a distance as a black painting with a ragged white hole in it reveals upon a closer view to be layers of text, collage, and painted imagery, again of the passage across the Atlantic. Bailey’s works, whether two-or-three-dimensional are quite complex and reveal much study of the cultures of Africa, particularly of art created for healing, and of history all through the African Diaspora.

Bailey resides and has his studio in Atlanta. The High Museum in Atlanta hosted a major exhibition of his work entitled, Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine, in the Summer of 2011. Museum officials there said “Radcliffe Bailey explores American history and memory to encourage healing and transcendence through art.” After viewing Bailey’s works in the CAC exhibition and seeing his pieces in the Kongo Across the Waters exhibition at NOMA, this seems to sum up the feeling one gets from his work. His use of the Kongo Nkisi images and healing purposes in so many of his works fits with his perception of an artist as a healer.

In her chapter, “Minkisi and Dikenga in the Art of Radcliffe Bailey” in the KONGO across the Waters catalog for the current exhibition at NOMA, Carol Thompson, curator of African Art at the High Museum in Atlanta writes, “As a Nina Simone song describes a soul as coming back and back and back for nearly 9,000 years, Radcliffe Bailey’s art nurtures his “ancient soul” tracing the complex network of his ‘aesthetic DNA’ to create an antidote to cultural and historical amnesia.”

Bailey has had a number of exhibitions including the above mentioned, “Memory as Medicine” at the High Museum in Atlanta in 2011. Earlier exhibitions included “Neo-HooDoo” at The Menil Collection in Houston and MoMA in New York. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta among others. His solo exhibitions at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York include “Maroons” (2014), “Outer Spaceways”, (2011), “Altered Destiny” (2007) and “Meet Me by the River” (2002).

The exhibition of Radcliffe Bailey’s work will be on display at the Contemporary Arts Center through June 7. The catalog from his Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine exhibition at the High Museum in 2011 is available at the CAC.

Dr. Sara Hollis is a professor in the M.A. Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). She can be reached at: shollis@suno.edu.

The New Orleans Tribune

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