1896 –1987

Dilmus Hall

Athens, Georgia
About
Blue Hands
By:
Maude Southwell Wahlman

Dilmus Hall was one of many children in a farming and blacksmithing family living near Athens, Georgia. As a schoolboy he shaped animals from clay, and from flour mixed with sweet gum he got by "blazing" trees on his parents' land. His father did not think much of his son's art, in that he considered picking cotton a boy's most important function. His mother, however, appreciated the little sculptures that Dilmus brought her, and she encouraged him. Hall eventually left the family farm to work in a coal mine and swing a pick with a road gang. In 1917, he joined the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army and served in Europe as a stretcher-bearer. European art inspired many of his later sculptures.

Hall later returned to Georgia to work as a hotel bell captain and waiter, a sorority house busboy on the local University of Georgia campus, and a fabricator of concrete blocks for a construction company. He retired in 1961. He had married Zaydie, whom he described as "a splendid woman, and I sure loved her." She died in 1973. They were unable to have children, but, as Hal said about the doctor who told them this, "Fooled him! Whooee, yes. I fooled him. He didn't know me, didn't know about die gift of my talent. 'Cause I sure did make children. I'm still making 'em, out of concrete and whatever else I can find to do with."

In the way he made art and in the way he decorated his house, Dilmus Hall is consistent with African American conjuring culture, a vernacular religion that mixes aspects of Christianity with various African traditions of empowering objects. African American yard arts can be proclamations of individual public identity, tools for remembering aspects of African American conjuring culture, storytelling devices, memorials to artists or others, signs to community members, and conscious protective systems for controlling or keeping away dangerous forces. Hall's earliest constructions, possibly fifty years old, are three personal protective charms made from roots, painted blue and nailed to the eaves of his porch. His charms are similar to central African protective devices called niiukisi, also made from twisted roots. A round cement ball in Hall's yard, decorated with two blue hands and dated 1962, refers to an African American charm called a "mojo" or "hand."

Crosses and diamonds, favored in African American vernacular religions, are associated with a central African cosmogram which represents four moments of the sun, or four stages of the soul: birth, life, death, and rebirth. Although Hall frequently used cross and diamond motifs, he was unaware of the African history associated with these symbols, but he did believe in their protective power. In the center of his living room ceiling Hall painted four red circles around a light bulb. His masterful horse painting, done by the artist in the 1940s and acknowledged by him as his first painting, features diamonds above and below the animal. Yellow cement diamonds were on four corners of his house, and blue wooden plaques with white diamonds were on three sides of all his windows, trimmed in a blue believed throughout the South and the Caribbean to be protective. A yellow wooden rising sun, with three diamond shapes below, was on the gable end of his house. Below, on the cement block wall, was a yellow cement sun and moon with eyes and smiling faces.

During the 1950s, Hall made allegorical figures of concrete over wire and wood armatures, which he placed in small groups in the front yard of his small cinderblock home. One protective tableau, titled The Devil and the Drunk Man, shows a drunkard passed out on a bed, another slumped at a table, bottle in hand, and a fearsome, red-eyed, open-mouthed devil standing over both, a rock in his upraised fist. Hall said, "Satan, he's making that old boy go on drinkin'." Hall believed that the devil was active in daily life, going to and fro, seeking ways to influence people into sinful acts, or be "whooped." His sculptures protected him from this devil.

Later, Hall drew prolifically on paper with colored pencils and crayons, producing hundreds of animated cartoonlike sketches and a series of arresting wooden crucifixions. A simple, elegant one was molded in half-relief over wood painted blue; another was the last sculpture Hall created. Two larger crucifixions, made of wood, putty and bits of rag, show Jesus nailed to the cross with a splinter in his mouth, stabbed by a Roman soldier's spear, and flanked by two thieves. Hall commented, "That's death he's crushing between his teeth."

According to Hall, he possessed creative talent all his life. "If God gives you the talent to make something that will celebrate mankind, your work will stand, do you hear me? It will testify to the goodness of life after you're done gone, yes."

Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.

The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

Dilmus Hall

The filming for this short began in 1987 as part of a larger project, The Mind’s Eye—which started with the documentation of “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art—and grew to include other folk/self-taught artists working at the time. Produced by The Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists.

Dilmus Hall: Crucifixion

By:
Theophus Smith

This particular crucifix by Dilmus Hall includes a curiously cruciform Roman soldier with a trident for a spear, another soldier piercing Christ's side with a spear, and a third cruciform figure representing one of the thieves executed alongside Jesus. Hall's crucifixes are as much a type of “counter-violence mojo" as Bessie Harvey's Slaughter of the Innocents. Together they represent a larger corpus of African American art, including literature, drama, and dance, that employ biblical themes within a conjurational tradition aimed to cure violence. Hall's conjure "trick" in this regard is to engage the central figure of the Afro-Christian spiritual tradition: the crucified Christ or "Suffering Servant" figure. At the core of this tradition is the correspondence or identification of African Americans with the crucified Christ. In this connection, black-religion historian Gayraud Wilmore, in his analysis of the "Black Messiah," has emphasized "the similarity of what seemed [to black people] to be their inexorable fate as a race and the Messianic vocation of suffering. . . [a] profound, if not exact, correspondence between their experience of blackness in Western civilization and the description of the Messiah." Wilmore then proceeds to quote a description of the Messiah from the "Suffering Servant" prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures, specifically the Book of the prophet Isaiah, in a passage still celebrated by Christians as a messianic prophecy that was fulfilled in the Passion of Christ (Isaiah 53:2-8):

He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;. . .
and we esteemed him not.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut out of the land of the living. . . .

A long tradition of African American piety, beginning in slave religion, affirms and even celebrates the correspondence between black experience and Jesus' messianic suffering. In this regard note the "formlessness" or lack of "comeliness" in Dilmus Hall's crucified figure; the artist gives us a visceral experience of a figure having "no beauty that we should desire him." Notice, too, that this representation effectively counters the conventional European Christ of blond-haired and blue-eyed beauty. But what if we see in this black messianic representation more than the self-aggrandizement of desperate victims; more than their pitiful efforts to find comfort by ennobling their suffering through comparison with the heroic suffering of Western civilization's most holy figure? What if the tradition involves more than African Americans acting out "slave ressentiment" (Nietzsche) by exploiting the sacred figure of their oppressors in order to manipulate popular sympathies? What if we see in this tradition the conjure trick that operates, in this case by hypothesis, in Dilmus Hall's crucifixes: a strategy of magical transformation comparable to the imitative (mimetic) power of a voodoo doll: what happens to the doll also happens to the person it signifies? Hall himself gives credence to this hypothesis with his comment about the curious stick or "toothpick" that adorns his Christ figure: "That's death he's crushing between his teeth." The black Messiah as the spiritual adversary of homo necans (humanity as death-dealer): that is the conjurational strategy that links Dilmus Hall's crucifix to his progenitor tradition.