Art In Conversation
Radcliffe Bailey with Ksenia M. Soboleva
“I like to hold on to my own personal secrets within work. I feel like when you do that, you hold a certain amount of power, and theres a mystery about it.”
New York CityJack Shainman Gallery
Ascents and Echoes
November 4 – December 18, 2021
Working across different media, artist Radcliffe Bailey has long been engaged in creating visual narratives that address the history of slave trade, forced migration, and African diaspora. Weaving together objects and imagery that speak to his personal history, as well as the collective history of Black people in the United States, Bailey’s work offers many layers for its viewers to unpack. On November 15th, 2021, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bailey on the occasion of his show Ascents and Echoes at Jack Schainman Gallery. The virtual conversation was part of the Brooklyn Rail’s New Social Environment. Highlighting a number of works in the exhibition, as well as a few older pieces, we discuss the wide scope of multifaceted references in his artistic practice, from ancestral deities to family travels. We also dive into the important role that music plays in his life and work, the potential for memories to function as medicine, and his intimate relationship to Atlanta, where the artist has lived almost his entire life.
Ksenia M. Soboleva (Rail): Radcliffe, I’m so honored to be in conversation with you. I wanted to start by looking at some images from your current show at Jack Shainman: Ascents and Echoes. How did you arrive at this title?
Radcliffe Bailey: Well, arriving at the title was based on echoes from the past, but then also the past work. Ascent was based on rising and ascending, and I use a lot of references to railroad tracks. But I also play with the idea of the railroad tracks turning into different things, like railroad tracks turn into ladders, but they also turn into DNA strands. So, it’s a mixture of different things. But it's also inspired by the music of John Coltrane, in particular an album called Sun Ship; there were references to ascent.
Rail: I’m so captivated by the ways in which you use objects, either from your personal archive, or from a collective archive, as containers of memory. And those who are familiar with your earlier work know that you often incorporate personal photographs. In 1991, during your last year of art school, your grandmother gifted you 400 tintypes, dating back to the late 1800s, and over the years, you've been incorporating those into your works, mainly in a body of work that you refer to as “medicine cabinets.” You've mentioned that at this point, you’ve run out of the photographs. But while there are no personal photographs in the current exhibition, it is still very rich in objects and materials that speak to your ancestry and that carry the history of migration, which is so representative of your practice at large. I was hoping we could highlight a couple of works, starting with King Snake (2021). When I visited the exhibition, this work really stood out to me because it's so subtle, almost delicate. So much of your work is about layering and weaving that this work seemed strangely and beautifully exposed. There was a certain vulnerability to it. And you mentioned that this was actually the first sculpture that you made during the pandemic. I was wondering whether you were thinking about medicine through your use of the snake, or does it have another symbolic meaning?
Bailey: Well, I think snakes are beautiful, but I don’t like snakes. And at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was locking down, I decided to go back to making sculpture. So I bought a welder, and I went back to working in metal; probably the last time I worked in metal was when I was in college. And so as I’m working in the back of my studio, I just remember walking out and seeing this rubber hose—I'm assuming it’s a rubber hose, but it was actually a snake. So for me it was referencing that snake, but referencing that snake in different ways: what we see in the medical signs, like the two snakes wound together, but it's also a reference to Haiti, referring to Damballa, and so I'm making these references to a lot of different things but then also my interest in self taught artists—in particular Bill Traylor. So it's also a reference to Bill Traylor's snake. Philip Simmons, who was a blacksmith in Charleston, made beautiful gate work and metalwork, and it's a reference to him as well. And let me see … another reference I make is to a song based around a king snake, “I'm a Crawling Black Snake” by Lightnin Hopkins.
Rail: It almost looks like an exclamation point.
Bailey: Right, and the head of the snake is actually made out of a railroad spike. And there are parts of it where the bends are actually parts of a railroad spike as well.
Rail: And the shadow casts three heads.
Bailey: The three headed snake. [Laughs].
Rail: Beautiful. The largest piece in the exhibition is a piece titled Nommo (2019) which refers to an ancestral spirit. Correct? You first created this piece for the 2019 Istanbul Biennial. Could you speak a bit to that process and how this work came to be?
Bailey: Right. This work was fabricated and created in Istanbul. It was supposed to be shown in the old shipping yard. So basically, I collected materials from the shipping yard and recreated a ship. It’s really based around a bottom of a ship. There are some references to the Clotilda, which was a ship that was sunken, an illegal ship during the slave trade, when the slave trade had ended. This ship sank in Mobile Bay. So it’s a reference to that. But then also, when I think about that, I think about Alabama, and there’s a reference to Sun Ra. I know many people who are listening right now are familiar with Sun Ra; Sun Ra was a jazz musician who basically believed that he was from outer space, and he referred to himself as Sun Ra. He did a performance in Istanbul, where he played on the back of a truck, driving through the streets of Istanbul. On top of the ship, you see plaster busts; those are busts that I collected from an antique dealer in Belgium. I acquired the mold from him, and poured and cast them myself. The bust itself was supposed to be a death mask, and it being from Belgium meant that the actual bust was probably someone from the Congo. And so that’s a reference in the work too. There’s also a radio that’s playing. It’s playing June Tyson singing, “if you find earth boring, just the same old, same thing.” Outer Spaceways Incorporated. And I basically created a radio station playing different sounds. Another friend of mine, a jazz musician, bass player named Tarus Mateen, someone who I’ve known since college, would often come to my studio and play to my work, and I would paint to his sounds. So it's an incorporation of that, as well as the sounds of the ocean and the sounds of trains; a constant movement and migration. But as I mentioned earlier, I see it as the bottom of a ship, but I also see it as a spaceship, as well.
Rail: This work is so exemplary of the important role that music plays in your creative practice, which was particularly poignant in your installation, Windward Coast (2009–11), a work that has received much attention over time and has had several iterations. It consists of 35,000 discarded piano keys that are shaped into wave-like forms, recalling an ocean, and then there is a ship and an isolated floating bust of a Black man placed on top. You always use the same mold, the one you acquired in Belgium, for all the busts?
Rail: And then there’s the soundtrack of the keys falling, and I think it's interwoven with other sounds as well? I'd love to hear more about your relationship to this work, and also about your relationship to music and how it has evolved over time?
Bailey: Well, I will admit one thing: I don’t know how to play a single instrument. I can whistle. But I don’t know how to play a single instrument. You know, I dream. I have an upright bass in my studio, and I don’t profess to know how to play it. But whenever I’m in a situation when I’m working on a painting, and I feel as if I’m stuck, I’ll go and play with the bass. And I realize how difficult that is, and then realize I need to jump back onto that painting. It’s almost like a problem solving thing. So music has always been somewhat of an ingredient in my work, or some type of seasoning that’s added to my work. I often listen to music while I’m working, all different types of musicians. I prefer no vocals. But the piece itself, you know, I think you said 35,000 piano keys, often referred to as 400 sets of piano keys … basically, I’m imagining how many people have touched those piano keys. And I realize that that’s the one thing that kind of connects us in this country, throughout the southern part of the United States, and the United States in general, in terms of connecting towards the continent is, there’s a common thread of music and sounds and rhythms. So I am kind of playing back and forth with that. It’s called Windward Coast and it’s based on someone who was lost at sea, and it’s installed several different ways. Sometimes I spread it out open, and spread it across the floor, where it’s even and calm. And sometimes I respond to things that are happening in the world in terms of, you know, climate change, and I think of it like a tsunami. I remember I responded to that and installed it with heavy waves crashing onto walls, as if it was coming throughout spaces. It changes depending on where it’s shown. I’ve shown it in Colombia, I’ve shown it in Dakar. And each time I’ve shown it in different ways. There’s a ship that appears to be caught in a storm and also refers to another piece for which I worked with piano keys, called Storm at Sea (2007). That piece was based on a Yoruba deity named Shango. And I did attributes of Shango with thunder and lightning. What if Shango caused a big storm, and carried those who were lost at sea? I’m also fascinated with the slave trade routes. And based on the slave trade routes, the places where storms happen to this day.
Rail: Where do you source the discarded piano keys?
Bailey: [Laughs]. Well, when I first started, I stored them in my studio, and I have a container where I keep them, but in different places. And the reason I started working with the piano keys was based around a piano shop that’s around the corner from my house. I would often walk by it as a kid, and I remember one day walking into the piano shop and they were discarding the piano keys, and they were burning them. And I said, “stop, just give them to me!” I just brought them straight to the studio. I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. But as soon as I brought them into the studio I dropped them on the ground and realized that was a piece.
Rail: I like what you said about the history of touch being embedded in every piano key. It's such a beautiful metaphor for the traces we as humans leave on the fabrics of everyday life. You are one of the most renowned artists whose work has, since the ’90s, addressed the history of slavery and the African diaspora. But you do so through very poetic and spiritual registers. And you’ve said to me that just because something is a commentary on a painful past, doesn’t mean that it can’t be beautiful. Your work employs beautiful imagery of the ocean, and of railroad tracks, but it evokes painful histories, such as the Middle Passage and the Underground Railroad. There’s one work in this exhibition where I noticed there seemed to be a more direct, or literal, commentary on the current state of this country. It’s titled Slow Blues (2021). What were you trying to convey with this work?
Bailey: Well, Slow Blues kind of came about around the time that I was thinking about Stacey Abrams, and living in the South, or living in Atlanta. Living in Atlanta is different than living in Georgia, I can tell you that for a fact. And Slow Blues was basically just, you know, really referring to how we slowly have turned blue. But it also refers to certain parts of the United States, which I have always—I’ve always thought of it as one state, I’ve never really like, I’m not really dealing with the battles of the Civil War, but I’m just dealing with the fact that I have always considered certain parts of the United States, especially in the South, as one particular state, one particular place that I’ve always been fascinated with. So the piece is dealing with that. I’ve used indigo, and there’s that heavy, loaded meaning behind indigo, used as a crop during slavery, and also references the blues. It’s a mixture of all that. And the piece is in a cabinet, it’s not a frame; I refer to these works as medicine cabinets. The idea was that whenever you get sick, you go to the medicine cabinet to get something to make you feel better. I refer to memory as medicine. There are also reflective qualities on the glass; some of those reflective qualities are meant to repel, like a mirror, almost like the Congolese figures, Nkisi Nkondi. And they have a glass stomach and part of it has medicine in it, and part of it is supposed to repel, the glass or the mirror. And so that’s what the piece is about for me.
Rail: The press release actually mentions that this exhibition signifies a move away from figuration and more into abstraction. But I found that there still is a lot of figuration in the show, but also that the abstract shapes seem to almost echo figurative elements, such as the photographs that you were using earlier. Was there a conscious move into abstraction? Or was that statement in the press release a surprise to you?
Bailey: I think that the photograph has always been a way in which I can hold a certain audience. The photograph was really about connecting to those that were closest to me, those that are not necessarily art goers, those who don’t go to museums, my friends, or older people who can draw a relationship to those images of that particular time period. I did that on purpose, because when my grandmother gave me those photographs, I realized right then and there that she was talking to me. I felt like it was important for me to incorporate that into my work. I’ve always worked in a way that people may refer to as more abstract and less figurative. But I’ve always dealt with the figure because when I think about the figure, I think about my own personal scale and how I can stretch this far, how I can climb this high, and deal with certain scales. If I make a painting that’s five foot eight, that’s really based around my height. So the figure has always been there.
Rail: You have lived in Atlanta for the majority of your life. What is your relationship to the city? Have you ever thought of leaving, and if so, what has made you stay?
Bailey: You know, I’ve always thought about leaving. I think the thing that holds me here is that my mother and father are here, and my brother. And we’re very close. My mother and father live two blocks away from me. I watch them, I look after them, and I just feel close. There’s a certain kind of … when you grow up in a city where you can kind of walk down the same trails or paths that you’ve crossed when you were four years old, there’s something about it. Growing up in a city like Atlanta, where there’s a large African American community of politicians, doctors, it’s the home of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, I can go down the list on and on, you know, African American mayors. And I’ve grown up with that community. Some of the mayors were my friends. So it’s one of those things, it feels like home. I’ve always been tempted to move to New York, or had an interest in moving to New York, but it was also a little difficult for me. Because there was a certain point in my life, when I first started showing work, I was a junior in college, I had somewhat of an early start and I made a decision not to go to grad school, but to just stick to making work nonstop. It wasn’t because of a gallery system. The one thing that we have in Atlanta that’s one of the most beautiful things in the world to me is a big airport. So I can go anywhere. Before we were doing social media, that airport was a connector to me.
Rail: And you did an installation at the airport, no?
Bailey: Yeah, I think one of my first commissions was that at the airport, in 1995, or ’96, right before the Olympics. It was a big commission and I was kind of thrown in the loop . It was awesome, but also a lot of pressure. I had to make this painting that was 20 by 40 feet, and hangs above an escalator.
Rail: Am I correct that your backyard in Atlanta was a site of civil war?
Bailey: Yeah, I live right behind the Cascade Springs Nature Reserve. And in the nature preserve there was a Battle of Utoy Creek, and there were troops that were camped in my backyard. There’s a whole strange history behind the Nature Preserve. First and foremost, dealing with the Indigenous of this area, but also with a battle where lives were lost. Living on the property, you think about the Civil War. I’m also in a neighborhood where there are a lot of civil rights leaders. It’s beautiful. It’s a place where I’m at peace.
Rail: It’s interesting that you literally live on layers of history, and your work is layering and weaving together all these histories. The aesthetic strategy of collage also speaks to this process of displacement and fragmentation. What is it like to have that daily confrontation with history?
Bailey: I feel like I’m almost dabbling, one foot in the past and one foot in the present. It’s interesting going out into the backyard and digging up Georgia clay, and thinking about the lives that were lost and the blood that was shed, but then also about Native Americans. It’s almost like working with those old photographs from the past, like I’m trying to read within those photographs and trying to understand what may have happened back then; reading a face, or a gesture, or the way someone’s dressed … if they’re dressed as if they were coming from a funeral, or they were celebrating something. I’ve had some photographs where there are people standing at a beach in a circle. I didn’t really know exactly what they were doing, but they were dressed in their Sunday best. They may have been dealing with a funeral, or maybe the birth of a child, I wouldn’t know. But I respond to those clues, and I try to create a story, but I don’t necessarily try to be literal about this story. I feel like we live in between two different worlds: one world of things that are tangible and one world where things are not tangible. We live in our dreams and during the day. It’s a whole strange space. I hope I answered that question.
Rail: You did, thank you. Something that I wanted to ask you about as well is that I noticed your work often evokes movement through railroad tracks, the ocean … but at the same time, there is a certain negation of that movement. This rock, for example, is weighing the railroad down, prohibiting movement. Your father was a railroad engineer.
Rail: So it’s not only a reference to the Underground Railroad, it’s a reference to your father, to your personal history. Can you speak to this tension between movement and stasis?
Bailey: Well, I feel like we’ve always been moving back and forth. You know, referring to migration, we’ve always moved from north to south to east to west. We’ve crossed the ocean. I made OWB (2021) for my daughter, Olivia Wilhelmina Bailey. The track goes up, it goes around, and it kind of plays on the Kongo cosmograms. And the boulder, the rock itself, was a rock that was taken from the nature preserve behind me, there was a quarry, and a lot of the granite and things that you see on state monuments were taken from these different areas. I use that, and I dip the granite into indigo. It’s almost like a crucifix too, I wasn’t being specific about it, but things kind of happen in the shadows. I’m not much of a religious person. I think the only religion I have is in my studio, that's where I find a place to pray.
Rail: Which has no windows, right? Your studio.
Bailey: Right. No windows. [Laughs]
Rail: What informed that decision?
Bailey: I didn’t want any windows because I wanted to have enough wall space to pay for it. [Laughter]
Rail: Another thing that I noticed is the use of tabby throughout the show.
Rail: So there’s all this heaviness; boulders, rocks, and then tabby. What made you interested in that material? And where do you source it?
Bailey: Tabby really came about from trips that I would take with my mother, father, and brother. We would go up and down the coast, from the Carolinas, all the way down to Florida. And I just remembered this material, sometimes you would see the shells on the walkways, but then there were quarters on the plantations, for those that were enslaved and built these quarters. And these quarters were made with the tabby. I just remember that experience and the shells, and hearing about how you burn the shells, crush them, create lime and sand, and it results in a concrete structure. I remember it was porous. You can trace it to North Africa, Spain, and also some places where the Indigenous people of America would use it as well. I remember on one particular plantation, on Cumberland Island, there was one area where there were chimneys that were the only thing that was left. And I remember looking over one particular chimney, and there was a conch shell within the chimney, around the tabby. And to me, it spoke to that particular person’s place and their spirituality.
Rail: You first traveled to Africa in 2006. And in this work, Door of No Return (2019) you revisit an older work bearing the same title that you made in 2006. The photograph is a personal photograph you took, and it’s surrounded by what I see as a constellation; it evokes outer space, and perhaps Sun Ra. How was this work informed by your travel to Africa?
Bailey: It was really based around going to Senegal and Dakar, and then going to Gorée Island. Most people, when they go visit Gorée Island, want to understand where that last step onto a ship was. I wanted to recreate that. But I also wanted to deal with these other places, unknown places, outer space. So there’s a glittery screen that’s a mix of glitter and black sand; the black sand was referencing black sand beaches, in places like Jamaica. The photograph itself is not a photograph from Senegal, but a photograph I took when I was in Havana, Cuba. When you make a work, you never really know exactly what’s going to happen, you can’t predict it. If you can predict it, it’s too easy. I gladly admit that the photograph is taken in Cuba, and not Africa. Now I look at this work and think of those that are of African descent in Cuba. I see the pain, and I understand the pain. When I took the trip to Senegal, I was tracing my mother’s DNA, and I traced it to Sierra Leone and Guinea. So there’s that reference to a sense of place, but also being in a dark space of unknowing, and thinking about outer space and constellations, and how people travel by night.
Rail: Do you find that you often revisit earlier works? Maybe we can look at a few images of your largest exhibition to date at the High Museum of Art, Memory as Medicine. These are the pieces that you refer to as “medicine cabinets.” I don’t think I’ve asked you what first made you interested in the medicine cabinet as a form. You mentioned that the medicine cabinet is where you go to feel better, but a lot of medicine is bad for you too.
Bailey: I was just thinking about African art. And conceptually, different ways in which I can approach things. I’m interested in holding and keeping secrets too, that’s a very important part of my work. I feel like I tell so much about the work, but we never really know the true story behind those [African] objects. We speak about them in form, but we don’t really know exactly why or exactly who it was made for. I like to hold on to my own personal secrets within work, too. I feel like when you do that, you hold a certain amount of power, and there’s a mystery about it. I enjoy that. I hope that there are certain works that I make that can hold that.
Rail: So certain works we shouldn’t ask questions about. [Laughs]
Bailey: No, I don’t mind. But there’s one, Minor Keys, (2005) that’s a baby grand piano that has piano keys on the inside, but also planets. And on top of where the keys are, there’s a Plexiglas blue glaze that shines over it. And it appears as if you’re looking inside of a fish tank. My whole thing was the idea that the deeper you go into the sea is just as deep as you go into outer space.
Rail: I wish I had visited Vessel (2016–2017), which I understand to be an immersive sound experience. You did it at The School, Jack Shainman’s upstate gallery, but also at a few other places, correct?
Bailey: Yeah, Prospect commissioned me to do it. It was done right on the Mississippi, and I wanted to make it look like a stack on top of a ship. I worked with some architects, Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam, to design it. And I created it in such a way that you can go in the back of it and walk around and I put up a stereo system that you can’t see. I ran sound through a conch shell, and I commissioned a young musician to play over it, Okorie Johnson, he played cello. I invited him to visit me at my house on a full moon, I made a fire in the back in the woods, and I recorded him playing over the fire. So it’s the sounds of fire popping on the full moon, with insects, you can hear cicadas in the background. But then you can also hear the sounds of the street, and you hear cars going by in the distance, like a distant drum going down, and you hear the sounds of dogs barking. There’s also the sounds of the ocean, and you start to hear the sounds of a train, and then you kind of fade into the insects. It was really about the history of crossing the Atlantic and migrating from south to north, and using that train, someone escaping … and the sound comes out of the shell at the top of the vessel.
Rail: You're working on a few site specific installations right now as well. One is in Greensboro, North Carolina?
Bailey: Right, it’s a piece on the subject of freedom, and I’m making a 30-foot-long railroad track into the sky. There are other parts to it as well; a neon star at the top, like the North Star. It’s based around the Dogon ladder, so it has this Y shape, and it goes in different directions. There’s sound elements to it as well, which I’m still working on. I’m also collaborating with a landscape architect and the base of the piece is changing, it’s turning into the bottom of a ship.
Rail: What is it like to be working on site specific installations versus being in your studio?
Bailey: I enjoy being outside a studio. The studio can be a little confining. I like being out in nature, interacting with people. I like working outside of white walls. It’s a good feeling to be able to put your fingerprint somewhere.
Rail: Are you making a move into installation? There’s another one that you’re working on right now, that’s in your backyard?
Bailey: Yeah, it connects to the nature reserve. I was thinking about making a place like an amphitheater, but it’s really based on the local musicians that live within the community. I wanted to create a place where musicians could perform and play—someone could probably get married in it, as well. I really want to create a space that can do several things. On the back part of it, there’s an area where someone could sell produce. I think a lot of times artists want to be architects and architects want to be artists. I’m finding myself in that space.
Rail: I have one last question that I wanted to ask you, though I think maybe I know the answer already. If you could play an instrument, what would it be? And why?
Bailey: If I could play an instrument I would play upright bass.
Rail: That’s what I thought, because you mentioned it earlier.
Bailey: Yeah, I think it’s the closest to a drum, and I just enjoy the sound of the bass.
Rail: I’m going to start listening to more bass after this conversation. [Laughter]. Radcliffe, thank you so much. This was a pleasure.