27 February 2014

Winfred Rembert Beyond Memory

Chain Gang Picking Cotton, 2001.

DH, friends Alex and Robin, and I recently viewed an exhibit of paintings by Winfred Rembert at the Danforth Museum, a community art resource in Framingham, Massachusetts.  Mr. Rembert, an artist of color born in Georgia in 1945, experienced the horrors of growing up in the Jim Crow south and, in the aftermath of an arrest during a civil rights protest,  found himself sentenced to a chain gang for seven years.  While in prison he also learned to tool and work with leather. Several years after his release, he married Patsy Gammage, who encouraged him to tell his personal history in the medium in which he was already expert - carved and dyed leather. 

This material has a slight sheen, hence the bit of glare in my amateur photography, but the glare at least serves to highlight the richness and detail of the low relief carving.

In the images of chain gangs picking cotton, there is a wrenching contrast between the almost choreographic deployment of men, all in cinematic black-and-white stripes, and the reality of back-breaking, mind-numbing work.  An article about another exhibit of Mr. Rembert's work relates that men of color received heavy sentences for misdemeanors and so were over-represented in the stripe-wearing chain gangs.

In the Ditch, 2005.

Throughout his work, Mr. Rembert records costume - apparel and accessories - as a marker of status and social order, from prison garb to work clothes to Saturday-night finery, but it is the striped convict uniforms that seize the viewer's attention.  In his book The Devil's Cloth, historian Michel Pastoureau explains the origins of the convict's stripes:

The Devil's Cloth begins with a medieval scandal.  When the first Carmelites arrived in France from the Holy Land, the religious order required its members to wear striped habits, prompting  turmoil and denunciations in the West that lasted fifty years until the order was forced to accept a quiet, solid color.  The medieval eye found any surface in which a background color could not be distinguished from a foreground disturbing. Thus, striped clothing was relegated to those on the margins or outside the social order - jugglers and prostitutes, for example - and in medieval paintings the devil himself is often depicted wearing stripes.  The West has long continued to dress its slaves and servants, its crewmen and convicts in stripes. - Michel Pastoureau
Picking Cotton with Boss Men, 2007-8.
The Georgia convicts wear a uniform, but the blue-clad mounted guards do too -  only the horses register as individuals in the undulating, endless white and brown sea of cotton bolls. 

Loading Cotton, 2009.

Mr. Rembert began picking cotton at age six. His depiction of farm laborers reaching the end of a row of cotton shows sharecroppers dressed in work attire made from the material they are harvesting. The scene is less benign, though, than the period trucks, colorful clothes and hats might indicate, as agricultural workers were exploited in the sharecropping system.

Loading Cotton, detail.

The Mud Hole, 1996.

Other paintings capture episodes throughout Mr. Rembert's life: wearing a flowing white robe during his river baptism, an animated church service with men in black suits and women in their Sunday frills, and men after work, milling about in casual, Breugel-like groupings that form a contrast to the regimented rows of workers depicted in the chain gang and cotton-picking scenes.  At work, people are regimented in appearance and in action; at play, they decide what to wear and where to go.

Hungry Eye, 1998.

Nowhere is the freedom afforded by recreation more evident than in the wonderful depiction of a hot night spot, the Hungry Eye, where each man and woman flaunts his or her individuality in dress and demeanor.  Hats, neckties, necklines, rows of buttons and other fashion details are all lovingly depicted, and there is not a stripe in sight.

Hungry Eye, details.

There is a recent independent film about Mr. Rembert, All Me: the Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, whose work is important for both its historical and artistic merit.