Hobo # Birdman

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    Photo: Gamma One Conversions
Place mats, class, enamel, spray paint, on wood
48 x 96 inches
Collection of
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

In 1926, upon publishing "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," poet Langston Hughes identified an African and Judeo-Christian image so potent it continues to cradle the dreams of the people conjured by its waters As black Americans have considered their riverness, metaphor has become prophesy: rivers offer three choices to people who encounter them. Does one stop, cross, or navigate downstream?

African Americans living in the teeth of segregation and its successor, stratification, have survived by combining the daily and the mythic. Their figurations extend beyond what bubbles up in oral accounts, music, and religion, the three most externally visible signs of southern blackness. Along America's spinal river, the Mississippi, in Memphis lives Joe Light, who has channeled riverine force into a visual language. Born a Baptist (and baptized twice), he adopted Judaism while incarcerated in the 1960s and has dedicated himself since to applying Old Testament theology to the contemporary world.

Joe Light's artistic vision considers the challenge of how to reach a farther shore of rightness with God, awareness of the founding oppression of his people, and personal fulfillment. To the riddles of riverness, his senses of theology, history, and autobiography respond with two human presences: the "hobo" and the "birdman." They occupy the nearer banks of rivers—our flawed reality—in search of ways across to the unpopulated, pure spaces the river sheaths. The possessionless hobo wanders the river's edge in hopes of a better opportunity, while the birdman seeks to take flight. These two figures encapsulate Light's life as drifter and revelator, and reflect on the deep paradoxes of secular and sacred African American responses to psychological and economic domination within a racialized society. Meanwhile, two plastic place mats—one featuring a reproduction of the United States Capitol, the other, a nostalgic scene of ice-skating on a frozen pond—situated between the two personifications of his quest. The placemats are pressed behind glass. How to partake of America's feast? the piece asks.