1903 - 1987

Eldren M. Bailey

Atlanta, Georgia
About
Whitewash
By:
Paul Arnett

White man settin’on wall,
White man settin’ on wall,
White man settin’ on wall all day long,
Wastin’ his time, wastin’ his time
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These lyrics were reported by folklorist Howard Odum, who had been listening to the songs of an African American road crew near his home in Georgia in the early twentieth century. He had perched on a wall near the crew to try to discern their song’s lyrics. When he finally deciphered the “text” of their song and the cultural immanence he had been anticipating, it turned out to be a relational one that both spoofed his desire to possess them and swept him in as a participant. Still, that song that day was true to the African American work song—a musical form whose origins are inseparable from its amelioration of strenuous labor—for while deflecting a certain double violence (of a socioeconomic system that boxed these people into menial labor and then wished to document the hardship songs which arose), the song’s humor must also have made the shift pass a whole lot easier for that crew.

 

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A generation later, this strategy was thriving in the visual art of Eldren M. (“E.M.”) Bailey. Bailey built an outdoor sculpture garden in inner-city Atlanta filled with concrete monuments that grew directly from his trade as a maker of grave markers. In addition, he also made paintings that fused the traditions of the memory painting and the partisan political cartoon. One of these paintings, My Chulluns, like the work crew’s song, asserts with playful accuracy of black right, albeit a facetious one, to possess the white in mimicry of the long-standing white desire to possess the black. Elsewhere, artists like Pennsylvania’s Horace Pippin have demonstrated that memory painting has loon been a receptive host for a variety of social critiques. Bailey’s idyll keenly observes tropes that insidiously join mythic constructions of Woman, Black, Child, and Nature: tropes, for example, that link woman with landscape or agriculture (curves=curves; fertility=fertility); woman with water; woman with mystery (diaphaneity of water=diaphaneity of lingerie). In the literary tradition, there have similarly existed black send-ups of the white American genre of essays concerning what was once commonly known as “The Negro Problem.” Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures, a well-known play and movie from the 1930s, imagined the story of Genesis as a black vernacular inversion. Such forms of inversion are common in folk humor: a related set of black jokes from the Civil Rights era told of an arch-segregationist—Orval Faubus or George Wallace—who dies and, upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, hears a voice inside heaven asking, “Who dat?”

My Chulluns goes further with its parody, though, for Bailey’s painting not only gives ironic primacy to vernacular speech but also implies that speech’s capacity to become a master tongue or high tongue. He has taken the memory painting idyll and inserted two novel qualities—black authority over white, black word overall—to comment trenchantly on the definitional pretenses of words and images. Most important, he has sexualized the affair, thus staring down much more than the minstrel tradition (and much memory painting is also minstrelsy) by taking aim at the sexual impunities of the white patriarch. Though memory painting would not dominate his or other vernacular artists’ work, its found quality as a genre is extremely significant, for it presages not only the strategies of vernacular artists such as Joe Light, Purvis Young, and Ronald Lockett, but also those of many academically trained artists in the 1980s and ‘90s. My Chulluns is a title that, in spite of itself, cannot really be written down as such, for as an oral utterance it denotes an illiteracy, a lack of access to letters that must necessarily evaporate with their acquisition, and may thereafter survive only within quotation marks as the fiction writer’s or the ethnographer’s attribution to another. Yet here the title is the written voice of the Creator—Father describing his possessions, much as a benevolent God, slaveowner, or harem owner would describe them. The picture’s resonance lies in the way its title forces the viewer of the painting to mouth vernacular possessiveness, the sociopolitical strangeness of which amplifies the title’s parody of white male control and supervision, of black imitative desires, an of white derision of those black desires, and marks them all as “wastes of time.”

 

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Bailey made numerous such paintings, always for personal use, which hung throughout his hose. In one painting, entitled Organize, rabbits chase a startled hunter. Another portrays a black family in a cabin performing household chores—bathing a child and shining shoes—with the accompanying caption “Saturday Night,” in clear tilt against the stereotypes of wild black behavior on weekend evenings. A third, Just a Thought, depicts an Anglo American church barbecue adjacent to a small dwelling from which an aged African American woman is being evicted. Ecumenical is a painted vision of a world of tolerant, egalitarian churches. 

Unlike these paintings, however, My Chulluns was kept aside and usually hidden. His name on the piece is signed “Eldren M. Bailee,” a complex act of self-reinvention, whose functions were both self-protective and self-assertive. My Chulluns dates to the earliest years of the freedom movement (Bailey recalled only that it was painted before Kennedy was president), one of the most racially charged periods of southern history. Forces like rock’n’roll were making “The Negro Problem” almost as pressing as was the nascent freedom movement. My Chulluns’ sensibility helps guide us through Bailey’s major creative undertaking: his monumental concrete sculpture. These large monuments to aspects of urban black existence filled his small front yard in the Southside Atlanta neighborhood known as Mechanicsville. As Andrew Young has observed in his introduction to this volume, “It is the silent, stationary visual arts that have been perhaps the most politically and existentially dangerous form of personal expression for African Americans living in an unbalanced society.” Bailey’s monuments were of course existentially riskier than his risky paintings. The sculptures’ public presentation, their scale, their gravity, and their permanence demanded both utmost circumspection and the taking of every formal and iconographic liberty permitted to the black funerary traditions. They developed the greatest slynesses imaginable. In large part because of his daily contact with death, causes of death, and bereaved survivors, Bailey was intricately concerned with the nature of fate. His world view accords with the theme Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) close to make the philosophical starting point of his classic socioaesthetic study, Blues People: “When the concept of ‘deification of Accident in a universe where predetermination is the rule’ is thrown against the concept of a world where all things are explainable and the result of ‘rational processes,’ something emerges that must contain both ideas.”

Bailey’s sensibility was a profoundly self-reflective yet radicalized Afro-Christianity that identified the haint in the machine as a production of human consciousness. For the initiated viewer, his garden increased one’s chances of avoided “accidents” in this world by baring the interstitial spaces of protest and deep memory located within a system of survival. Chance is not accident. Chance is the circumspect spirit of My Chulluns tiptoeing and laughing among the cement monuments. The garden was separated from the street by a white and black checkerboard wall. Playing card suits—heart, diamond, spade, club—were inset into the driveway leading to the house. These emblems contained inscriptions, ranging from “Remember to Die,” to “Follow Me,” to “Mother Behold Thy Son Behold Thy Mother,” to Psalms 19:14. These are games of skill and luck—and do not count on luck. It must be remembered that one of the major cultural forces in Bailey’s neighborhood, as in many urban black neighborhoods until replaced by statewide lotteries, was “The Bug,” the “numbers game,” which enjoyed very wide participation and preoccupied many people’s thoughts. One of Bailey’s concerns was what he considered this misplaced longing for blind personal luck, a distraction from the deliberation of larger issues of historical, community fortunes.

 

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The first outdoor piece was a nine-foot-high crucifix erected in 1945. Throughout his life, this crucifix would support Bailey’s claim to be a “good Christian man,” while the unmistakably Caucasian (but quietly Lincolnesque) features of Christ’s face ensured that his yard always had the cover of political and racial neutrality.

These works’ lives as objects were allegories, too. Less the solemn, bleached monuments to death and ancestry that we see now, they were originally painted in what Bailey recalled as a lifelike manner. In time, after the paint began to weather, they were whitewashed in a kind of reenactment of the heroizing process, in the way that most people’s (and all heroes’) lives are ultimately cleansed and stylized by the bleaching effects of death and time.

 

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True to Bailey’s sense of irony, the figures in the yard are simultaneously embodiments of categories of black urban life—death, entertainment, sex, political deliverance, sports, religion—and parodies of these stereotypes about black urban life. Perhaps we could say that it is stereotypes that kill, that are the angels of social death. But the vernacular artist, particularly in colonial contexts, always seems to discover alternate lifeways amid the presumptions of death. Three of the statues—the monument to Henry Aaron, the Dancers, and Moon Lady—connote life. In a decisive break with most African American funerary sculptural traditions, these objects all move with consummate style. The figures of death (the dog, the urns, the swan, the monument to John F. Kennedy) remain static. Yet all these sculptures contain their share of understated playfulness. As both the primacy of religion and the “cover” of religion, the crucifix dwarfs all the other visual statements.

 

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The monument to Kennedy places the president under an airplane, which dispatched him quickly to the next world. The airplane is a common traditional emblem of passage in black cemeteries. This piece is on one level clearly and simply a death monument to Kennedy and to Kennedy’s posthumous association in black consciousness with deliverance—the flight of the airplane. In the time of its creation though, the airplane/Kennedy association implied something more: Kennedy’s best-known flight—to Berlin—and his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech condemning the building of the Berlin Wall. The overt patriotism and endorsement of Kennedy also scream in silent rage for a more urgent jeremiad on behalf of those who were immured down in the American South. This piece is a true and tragic lament, a monument to Kennedy’s premature departure to another world, before he finished scheduling and piloting urgently needed domestic “flights” to freedom. (Bailey mailed his plan to the federal government as a suggestion for a national monument to Kennedy, “But I never did hear back” he said, so he built his own.)

 

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The urns are also a typical graveyard emblem. These urns’ hugeness both stresses the centrality of death (trumped only by the even larger crucifix) and reminds us of the sheer quantity of African American ashes that any such memento mori must be prepared to contain.

 

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Then there is Moon Lady, seemingly shaking her exaggerated breasts and buttocks like the ultimate hoochie-coochie woman. Taking her bait, a visiting journalist once fliply glossed her as “a strangely twisted nude female that looks like someone I an old-time circus freak show as she might be depicted by an African tribal artist with a surrealistic bent.” Yet Moon Lady makes clear Bailey’s awareness of Egyptian culture and his determination to preserve a sense of an ancient heritage’s ambiguous modern remainders. She wears her hair in the form of the white miter, the royal headdress of Upper Egypt. Her body is a remarkable reconciliation of the expressionism of Bailey’s Dancers and Egyptian pictorial canons of two-dimensional, “mural” or “frieze” notation. (Bailey seldom incorporated Egyptian motifs into his paintings.) This queen and all her power and knowledge, only shows herself in the moon and in the light it symbolizes. After dark and after death are her two kingdoms of ecstatic release.

 

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The guardian dog (closest to the street of any of the garden’s sculptures) is a common motif in African American funerary traditions. This dog’s form and pose, however, are also substantially those of a far-distant guardian, the Egyptian jackal god Anubis, protector of the dead. (A famous jackal effigy guarded Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus.)

 

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The last piece added to the garden was the monument to Henry Aaron’s 715th home run. The Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium is a few blocks away. For months, Bailey worked openly in his front yard to create the piece, as if to stress the irrefutable inevitability of this second-generation “black first”—for Aaron was not among the first to participate in the major leagues, but instead had the distinction of toppling the greatest and most famous record in American sports. That Bailey finished the piece the night of Number 715 (the applauding roar of the stadium’s crowd could be heard) makes this a performance commemorative piece concerned with the real “numbers game” of black aspirations. It breaks a cycle of belief, not just belief in black inferiority, but also in the intrinsic power of the “numbers” themselves. The digits in 715 add up to thirteen, an “unlucky” number that makes 715 a series that would be avoided by players of “The Bug.” Aaron raps these sustaining superstitions out of the park. If Babe Ruth was baseball’s “Sultan of Swat,” Aaron becomes Swat’s Pharaoh. Though Aaron is in many ways Bailey’s most literal and direct theme, by the time of its creation in 1974 such a monument exuded fewer openly threatening connotations than public vernacular homages to say, a Joe Louis would have had in the 1930s, those to a Jackie Robinson would have had in the early 1950s, or those to a Muhammad Ali would have had in the 1960s. (Aaron nevertheless faced a certain amount of harassment and threats as he approached Ruth’s mark.)

Born in the tiny central Georgia town of Flovilla, Bailey left school after the third grade, moved to Atlanta at age thirteen, and like his father, went to work on the railroads. Much later in life, he recalled having been intrigued as a teenager by the drawings his Irish boss made on the walls of the boxcars. In 1942, he began making grave markers for a living an occupation, along with plastering and grave-digging, that he held for the rest of his life. Recognition, such as it was came to him only very late in life, and widespread understanding of his art, he once lamented, never arrived. He and his wife, Marjorie, never had children. Bailey used to say that while working on the railroad he passed through Atlanta, saw a young girl in her yard beside the tracks, jumped off the train to court her, married her and never returned to the railroad. When he would tell this story, he was not only reminiscing, but also speaking ritually, carefully distinguishing his life and beliefs from those of the itinerant bluesmen of the railroads and therefore reaffirming his philosophical commitment to Marjorie and their inner-city Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville. The house she grew up in, in-whose yard her husband had first seen her as his train passed by, became the house they would live in the rest of their lives.

 

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As a worker in the funerary tradition, residing in a crossroads like Atlanta, he encountered every belief imaginable concerning the rites of death. His Pyramid, made in honor of a woman he had known who died, triangulates among a variety of practices associated with found-object-inlaid funeral jugs and vases. (Bailey also made many plaster funeral jugs that push the tradition by incorporating political iconography and racial caricatures.) Encrusted with small quartzlike stones, costume jewelry, and pennies, the pyramid’s layers of meanings bring together more clearly than any other work his uses of African-based grave treatments, liberation theology, beliefs in fate, the study of Freemasonry, and covert Egyptianism. A consideration of the symbolic possibilities of the pennies alone reveals what, for a lack of a better term, we call the “power” of this “power object.” (and what else should a funeral monument be, if not polysemous and overdetermined?) Currency is often placed on African American graves, or affixed to tombstones. The practice of attaching coins to one’s ankles is a widespread folk practice for warding off bad fortune and disease. Copper is often considered a powerful or healing metal. Because the pyramid was made to honor a friend, the possibility remains that the dates on the pennies are significant. If we are mindful of the connection in Bailey’s crucifix between Christ and Lincoln, then Lincoln is his friend’s possible “liberator.” In traditional African American funeral rites, as in those of many other cultures, coins are placed on the deceased’s eyelids. The game of pitching pennies (Bailey was clearly interested in luck/death connections) is a widespread form of betting, and finding a “lucky penny” is a quintessentially good omen in America. The exclusive use of pennies on the Pyramid is likely related to New Testament theologies of economic and personal humility as prerequisites for entering Heaven. Moreover, the iconography of the penny, with the Lincoln Memorial on its reverse, transforms this small pyramid into an ironically grand memorial for a neighborhood friend. The shifting status of the pennies, such that both heads and tails variously face up, plays on the idea of the pyramid’s connecting of front and back, person and memorial, in and out, life and death.

Parts of the inside of Bailey’s home were covered in modeled concrete that resembled walls of a grotto. This “décor” conversed with Bailey’s sense of the early Christian habitations of the catacombs of Rome (two plaster fish were sculpted into his laundry room’s ceiling) and his interest in the legacies of those lost civilizations known only through their tombs or caves. Many of the utilitarian furnishings inside his home continued this theme. Lamps and planters assumed the forms of rock outcroppings, as if to emphasize Bailey’s idea that the earth repository of all things past, provides the assistance necessary for human life. Among the most interesting of these objects is a wall-hanging assemblage that combines the form of the wreath, used to celebrate holidays or honor the dead, with the painterly theme of the glade or an opening in the woods, and the image of a sudden “find” (as of a lucky penny) on the ground at one’s feet. Inside this circle of ivy are several strewn pebbles painted gold, whose complexity of meaning surely equals those of the Pyramid’s pennies, and whose overarching theme is human perceptions of value and the strategies for perceiving value.

 

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Two final household sculptures, Beware and Spider Lady, are of special interest. Both of these are “dangerous” women: Beware places a serpent around the woman’s waist; Spider Lady’s arms and legs are switched. Like My Chulluns, both pieces sexualize “Eve” in order to ruminate on a number of issues, from idolatry (Beware is gilded; Spider Lady is glossily ebony), to the craving to fix origins (the Christian Edenic myth of Beware and the African earth mother, Spider Lady), and the effects of objectification of women (the snake may strike the woman, while Spider Lady is pinned down). Though it cannot now be known if Bailey was familiar either with Vodun practices of Haiti or New Orleans, whose priestesses used snakes, or with the Akan trickster, Anansi, the spider who became Aunt Nancy or Ann Nancy in America, we may use these tricking figures in the ways Bailey did, to ask firmly but quietly: “In this place we have been put, who is tricking whom?”

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.

Minneapolis Institute of Art
December 12, 2020 to December 5, 2021

In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art” brings together methods of visual storytelling and ancestral memory through the individual practices of artists from the “Black Belt” region of the American South—a term that refers to the region’s black soil, as well as the le

Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
June 29 - November 3, 1996
"Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.