Martin Luther King Jr. and his family are presented playing the piano in the painting “Drum Majors” to represent not just the scene transpiring but the symbol of how King wanted to be remembered in his last famous speech and the current generation of leaders who invoke him and Coretta Scott King as their models. This picture was originally included in my exhibition at LIGHTBOX gallery in Los Angeles in 2008 called “Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea Pt. 1”, because, at the time, when the political campaigns and debates had already begun for the next American President, I felt that good leaders were like an “endangered species” in a world that was like a “ship at sea”. I have always been moved and inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement in general, and being born in 1966 have my own childhood affiliation with the memory of him (and the assignation and aftermath) on television and the media, and hope do whatever I can as an artist, teacher, and human being to contribute my efforts for equality and the recognition of the agency of all peoples in my life, which includes the fine art world of galleries and museums. I love Dr. King and everything he stood for, and wanted to pay homage and respect with this painting (one of several I have created around Dr. King, including his appearance also in this exhibition in the background of the portrait of Rosa Parks).
While looking for another image of him, I stumbled across the photo I created this from in an old Life Magazine, and although it was small (and black and white) was struck by not just the obvious joy and togetherness it represented of his family, but also how wonderfully symbolic it seemed, with the parents “teaching” the children how to play, and the mirror in the background reflecting into “our space” to invoke the viewer’s position within the paradigm of the picture. Although the painting veers from photographic representation, I hope how its not like the photo is what is “me” about it, inspired while creating this listening to King’s speeches, audiobooks about him and the movement (especially “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” by David J. Garrow), and music he liked and listened to in his lifetime. The wallpaper, while painting this work, seemed to come alive, and I was aware of the angelic-like way King’s presence still works upon our world. The debates between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were also playing out during the working process of painting this, and afterward, I was struck how, especially in the depiction of Dr. King’s son, my picture almost seemed like a younger version of Obama, as both Obama and Clinton invoked Dr. King repeatably in their remarks, and how generationally we’ve grown as a country because in part of King, his passion, and extraordinary work and sacrifice to even consider a black man (and a woman for that matter!) as President, much less elect him into office (now twice!). The full quote is “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Although the edited version of this was subsequently chiseled in (and now edited off) the King memorial in D.C., I thought at the time I created this work, that King’s legacy extended through his family generationally, and now to the world, where hopefully we are all “Drum Majors for righteousness,” learning in part from the lessons of Dr. King, his family and all their great work.
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Jacob Lawrence, Tombstones, 1942, Whitney Collection.
Jacob Lawrence broke out into the artworld at the young age of 23, when he gained national recognition of his 60 panel Migration Series, which, like the images in the installation, were a narrative series of paintings. Way before Basquiat, he was one of the first African American artists to help open the window for people of color to be acknowledged by the art establishment, becoming the most celebrated African-American painter in the country. I’ve really admired his style of “dynamic cubism” to bring out the inner essence of feeling and atmosphere in his figurative narrative allegories that were both political and beautiful, emotional and culturally resonant. He also created series of images that were not necessarily linear, hanging works salon-style to create a cosmology depicting the struggle for agency and freedom of great American people of color.