Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Achingly Haunting, Historically Appalling

Captioned, "Romeo and Juliet in cotton field"

Captioned, "Picking Cotton"

Captioned, "Down where the cotton blossoms grow"

Please click on all three of these images to see them in greater detail. The imagery and art and printing style are from another time. Their faces will haunt you. They should.

C O L L E C T I O N — Posted today are three postcards printed in the USA in the early 'teens of the 20th century. They were found in a packet of twelve similar postcards—postcards for what? I have no idea. None were ever sent to anyone, none of them have any inscriptions on the back. All of them are in fairly pristine condition. The three cards I've posted were separated, but the perforations on the rest were still intact having held them together for close to 100 years. They are still able to be unfolded from the cardboard stock folder they were packaged in. Were they meant as 'vacation mementos' as postcards serve today? Were they bought for their 'beauty' and when you see the originals up close, there IS a beauty to the printing, the hand coloring, the loving faces of those trapped in a life not of their own making. From everything I know, and have learned, about my family's history, I can say the irony of these cards would not have been lost on them. Is that why none were ever sent, instead saved for the future?

These cards show the vile side of the South barely fifty years removed from the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression as a contemporary confederate group in South Carolina is now referring to it, but I won't go there for THIS post). I'm haunted by the entire concept of these cards. Who decided people kept in abject poverty by a backwards Southern society, having to pick cotton for their familie's survival, would be a fine subject for postcards? The people illustrated were clearly close—families, lovers, friends—but at what cost to their lives and dignity posing for the original artist? Jim Crow laws were still very much in use, and no women at all had the right to vote when these were produced. Separate But Equal wasn't just a saying, it was the way of life for people, as were lynchings, rapes and slavery-in-everything-but-name. 

I'm really at odds with these historical pieces. I'm revolted by what they stand for, but they ARE part of the historical archives that make up this country's past. They can't be tossed into the garbage, as much as what they illustrate needs to be. As an artist, what would I have done had I been alive then and given the assignment to colorize the photos and create the lithographs for the cards? The postcard with the multigenerational family 'working' together, is captioned "Down where the cotton blossoms grow" as if they were on a family picnic or enjoying their own property.

These cards piss me off, they fascinate me, they scare me; they're utterly dismissable yet they must never be forgotten. The pieces of art I will create from these still elude me three years after first scanning them. I know I need to do something with them, but my usual process is absolutely stymied by their imagery.

Romeo and Juliet in cotton field. We must never forget.

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