Strange Fruit: Alabama Grapes
In a continued exploration of the still-life genre, Dial borrowed the stock image of grape clusters so ubiquitous in the fine-art tradition and recast them to portray a horrific chapter in African American history—the practice of lynching blacks in the South. Calling the series Strange Fruit, in reference to the Billie Holiday song of the same title, he appropriated a major trope from the history of Western painting and recolonized it with the politics of black revolutionary consciousness.
The original version of “Strange Fruit” was written in the late 1930s by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set his poem to music. With Holiday’s performance of the song, it soon became enshrined in the popular imagination as a symbol of the racist horrors suffered by African Americans:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
In the first of Dial’s Strange Fruit paintings, sub-titled Alabama Grapes, Dial presents two gigantic clusters of purple grapes, enlarged to fill the entire canvas and set against a blood-red background. The rounded shapes of the overripe hanging fruit are formed from the artist’s crushed paint cans in a way that symbolically conflates the history of black oppression and lynching with Dial’s own struggle as a Black artist. Ragged carpet and cut tin, painted green, form the oversize leaves of the drooping grapevine. Across the bottom of the canvas are fragments of old wire fence and screening. Bent and twisted into a kind of irregular enclosure, this row of rusty mesh recalls the lines of decrepit fencing in an abandoned grape arbor. Within Dial’s symbolic vocabulary, such fenced enclosures also signify both the slave pens of an earlier era and the ongoing barriers black Americans still face in their struggle to realize their aspirations.