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Artists reflect on Frederick Douglass’s words and legacy in ‘No Soil Better’ 

Americans spent a chunk of 2017 grappling with taking down monuments to Confederate figures. As the US commemorates the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass's chosen birthday this year, many of Rochester's discussions are centered on the 1899 Stanley Edwards monument of Douglass that has served as a tribute of his potent words and tireless work. Opening on Friday at Rochester Contemporary Art Center is "No Soil Better: Art & The Living Legacy of Frederick Douglass," a group exhibition of artwork inspired by Douglass, his words, and the statue itself.

The show is one of the fence-post projects of the wider, year-long "Re-Energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass" project. Another major aspect of the project is the installation of replica statues of Douglass in public spaces around the city.

"No Soil Better" comes from a speech Douglass gave on the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and appears on one of the panels ringing the monument's pedestal:

"I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil. I know of no country where the conditions for effecting great changes in the settled order of things, for the development of right ideas of liberty and humanity are more favorable than here in these United States."

Rochester Contemporary Executive Director Bleu Cease says that this show's origins are in 2014, when he and Carvin Eison, RCTV Media Center General Manager, were working on the Question Bridge exhibit and events. Frederick Douglass, his legacy, and the statue were a recurring topic in their many discussions.

"We wanted to use 'No Soil Better' as a title for the show in part because it connects to the ground here in Rochester, it connects to this place," Cease says. "It also is a positive, forward-looking message — it's a message in a speech that Douglass gave in response to a tragic time, a reversal, a swing of the pendulum the other way."

The Dred Scott case was a major setback, and for the most part, Douglass's speech is a condemnation, Cease says, "but he feels that he needs to, in response to the way people must be feeling, take a more forward-looking and positive approach in looking at the country."

Those few lines of glittering hope are present but expanded upon in one of Brooklyn-based, Botswana-born artist Meleko Mokgosi's drawings that Cease calls "meta-monuments." Mokgosi's stunning paintings and drawings in his "Pax Kaffraria" exhibition appeared at both MAG and RoCo last year. For this show he returns to an earlier vein of work — a series of text installations in which he added marginalia that critiqued and expanded upon problematic museum labels.

Here, he's applied this intervention tactic to a series of fine pencil drawings that aim to get the viewer to carefully consider the context behind these snippets of speeches, and urge us to dialogue with what is after all, an unfinished struggle. Each drawing depicts a panel from the base of the Douglass statue, his quotes framed by laurel leaves — but the cleverly quiet renderings are indistinct from afar, requiring the viewer to draw close and become absorbed by the buzzing flurry of Mokgosi's critical, handwritten footnotes.

A small display courtesy of City Historian Christine Ridarsky and the Rochester Public Library offers an historic framework for the show, and includes images of the Douglass statue in its original setting (near the New York Central Train Station on the corner of St. Paul and Central Avenue), as well as maps, newspaper clippings from 1898 announcing the monument, and a ledger filled with names of those who helped fund the statue.

"Here is the grassroots effort that made it happen, that made it the radical statement that it was," Cease says of the ledger. "What stands out for me is the Haitian government donated $1,000 — the former slave republic donated $1,000 to help this monument come together in Rochester, New York." One of Douglass's post-Rochester occupations was as a diplomat to Haiti and had a long interest in and relationship to the nation.

In all of Rochester's pride that Douglass made this city his home, there's less chatter about the divided political and social climate that marked the era and which, as today's social eruptions repeatedly show us, has more hibernated than perished. This climate is the subject of Buffalo-based artist Caitlin Cass's installation, which is a large drawing of the Douglass statue illuminated by a series of illustrations that are projected over it.

Each of the projected panels depicts newsworthy events surrounding the period of time that the statue was installed as well as varying opinions about the statue itself and its prominent placement. The work aims "to explore the ways in which the monument was embraced and accepted and considered by different people at the time," Cease says.

Even less discussed is the issue of the suspected arson of Douglass's home, which led to his permanent move from Rochester in 1872. Buffalo-based artist Rodney Taylor tackles this pivotal event with his painting of a rough, gnarled tree standing in a turbulent atmosphere and framed by a sky and ground that are the color of dried blood. Taylor's work is paired with Annette Daniels Taylor's poem "One Fire Lit Sky," which in simple, curt verse describes the stormy night that Douglass rushed home upon hearing of the fire and the refuge he was refused in two hotels.

The painted scene is rife with loneliness, and this point is emphasized by the poem's repetition of the word "one" at the start of almost every line. Rodney's statement includes Douglass's words on the experience of being denied sanctuary until he gave his well-known name and the hotels suddenly found room — echoes of this scenario exist today in the words of black stars who've been snubbed, harassed, humiliated, and abused until the offending party realized their status.

Annette Daniel Taylor's "Frederick Douglass Experiment" is installed in the small round room in the rear of the space. She constructed a website for the work, which she describes as a "sound-walk collaboration" between herself and Frederick Douglass, using words from his speeches and essays and her own voice and verse to create a layered, experimental artists' walking-tour of various Rochester sites and stories related to Douglass. An installed iPad allows visitors to explore all of the chapters, while a video display screens chapter eight, "Brethren is Who We Are," on a loop.

Rochester sculptor Olivia Kim's contributions to the show are drawings — one large, charcoal piece, and two smaller, color studies — of dance instructor and fiber artist Frances Hare. Kim states that she chose Hare as her subject because she feels that she embodies the freedom that Douglass fought for, and she urges viewers to take a movement lesson with her. In the larger of the works, a nearly life-sized and exultant Hare kicks one leg into the air and raises her arms, with visual echoes of the motion cascading around her. The work vibrates with the concepts of self-care and joy as defiant, as radical.

"Move strangely, as you never have before," Kim says in her statement. "By disrupting the habitual movement patterns in your body, you disrupt the habits that are recreating trauma. Have fun with it."

Syracuse-based artist Yvonne Buchanan's installation includes a mixed media map, titled "Douglass in Rochester," which spotlights sites in the city where he addressed the public. This is paired with a video, "You may rejoice, I must mourn," with fireworks exploding behind an image of Douglass while voices recite his cutting speech, "What is the meaning of July Fourth to the Negro?" — a famous indictment of celebrating Independence Day and "the land of the free" while a large part of the population was enslaved.

Stephon Senegal's work combines raw, found materials with Douglass's words, arranged into a sort of Vignelli-esque high design mini billboard. A spear-like object diagonally bisects the serene, clean lines of the piece, and other subtle allusions to violence emerge in spikes of paranoiac vision: In the low relief of black-on-black paint forming a toothy maw here, or a sharp streak of red paint that directs the eye to the ominous phrase "free doom fore freedom." The New York City-based artist will also install a series of works on buildings around the city this week, with locations to be announced.

Several of Rochester artist Luvon Sheppard's ethereal watercolors line one wall, depicting Douglass in various ages and stages amid blue skies or architecture and street scenes, framed and layered reverently with lines of Douglass's words and biblical verse — utterly joyful tributes to his work and legacy.

Shawn Dunwoody has a long history of making works about Douglass and portraying him in various performances. Here, Dunwoody's massive painting, "World Star," represents Douglass taking physical resistance to his enslavement, Cease says. The striking image has Douglass in a boxer-like pose standing over the prone body of a white man, his fists torn at the knuckles, and flanked by Civil Rights activists from the past and present. Both the dimensions of the work and its title are nods to how we capture, share, and experience social violence in the cellular era.

Rochester artist Thievin' Stephen's stenciled and spray painted portrait of Douglass, "Captured in Black and White," references one of the classic daguerreotype portraits of the man — here depicted in a warm spectrum of colors — and alludes to Douglass's use of photography as a way to humanize the issues and the people he fought for. In his statement, Thievin' writes: "Frederick Douglass weaponized the use of the new technology of photography to force America to confront the image of Black freedom, intellect, and dignity. He became the most photographed American of the 19th century."

This painting has a presence. Thievin' crisply captured Douglass's supreme poise and style, breathing life and dimension into a familiar image through a boggling amount of painstakingly cut stencils and layered, rich colors. He explains his choice to give it the Technicolor treatment and alludes to the neo-slavery of the prison system all at once in his usual, c'mon-keep-up word play that has almost as many layers as his paintings: "Now that we live in Oz, the greyscale and sepia tones that replaced his melanin may do more to conjure an era than a people. This painting is an attempt to harken back to the original power of Douglass's portraits, before developments in color photography made them pale in comparison."

The opening reception for "No Soil Better" takes place on Friday, February 2, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and an artists' talk is scheduled for Saturday, February 3, at 1 p.m. A series of associated events are scheduled through the run of the exhibition, including a community discussion, "What Would Douglass Do?" to be held Thursday, February 8, at 7 p.

There is also a "Shine a Light on Douglass" celebration on Wednesday, February 14, at 6:30 p.m. in Highland Bowl. The resulting photograph, taken by RIT's Big Shot photographers, will be added to the exhibit at RoCo. "Historicizing the Douglass Monument" takes place Friday, February 15, at 7 p.m. All events take place at RoCo unless otherwise stated. More details at


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