5 Works of Visual Art to Celebrate on Juneteenth

by Roy Rub

This Juneteenth, we invite you to explore and celebrate these pieces of visual art and their creators. A complex layered notion of ambivalence in relationship to “America”, or the idea and promise of America, is a thread connecting the work of the five artists below.

1. American Gothic by Gordon Parks



Gordon Parks photographed Ella Watson in 1942 at the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C where she worked as a cleaning lady. This photograph evokes the famous painting American Gothic by Grant Woods, which has since become an archetypical romantic image of Americana. Woods in fact intended for this painting to be read as a positive statement about rural American values.

Watson, with her tired gaze avoiding the camera, is a both a contrast and an echo to the two characters in Woods’ painting, modeled by his sister and their dentist. In both works the characters seem harden by their day labor. In his Social Realism style, Woods depicts two figures that are stern and proud. The farmer strongly grips the pitchfork and holding it in front of him. Is this a tool or a weapon? His gaze is locking eyes with the viewer. 

Watson shares some visual details like the long face features, the metal rim glasses and even her polka-dot dress remind us of the farmer’s daughter’s garment. But unlike the farmer and his daughter, she is alone and much smaller in the composition. She looks away as if shying behind the broom. Where Woods placed a Gothic styled house small in the background there is now a huge American flag serving as a backdrop for Watson’s portrait. Against this flag Ella Watson looks small. Is the flag her home like the house in the background of American Gothic? Does she feel protected or powerless? Is she proud or tired or both? What is the flag to her?

See the piece and learn more:

The Gordon Parks Foundation

Ella Watson: The Empowered Woman of Gordon Parks's 'American Gothic'

2. African-American Flag by David Hammons 1990 Dyed Cotton

David Hammons’ African American flag (1990) explores the relationship between institutions and representation. It was first conceived as an entry to the exhibition Black USA, an exhibition in Amsterdam of seven (male identifying) artists calling attention to the lack of exposure of African American art in Europe. African-American Flag was strategically placed between three museums and the American Consulate, flying in the courtyard of the Museumplein for the duration of the show.  

Hammons has created a new flag that is the offspring of the Pan-African flag and the American flag. In doing so Hammons reclaims self-representation, the power to tell ones' story. The thoughtful placement of the flag in the axis of politics/power (the American consulate) and representation (the museums) is highlighting who told the story of the African diaspora so far. 

"African-American Flag is not only an artwork, it is a flag for a new nation, a flag for a new insight, it is a new flag for a new form and a new truth. David Hammons creates a new truth - what more can art do?”

(Thomas Hirschhorn, “Thomas Hirschhorn David Hammons Quote” Stiftung Sommerakademie im Zentrum Paul Klee Reader, Bern, 2016, online)

From publicdelivery.org:

"The American Flag tries to seek silent answers to the questionable maltreatment of the African-Americans in the United States. It also sends a message about the misinterpretation as well as double standards and deception that is prevalent in being black in America. The flag delivers a sense of pride and confirms the presence of the African-American in the United States and that being black and American are one and the same thing."

See the piece and learn more:

Phillips.com - David Hammons

David Hammons (MoMA profile)

© 2020 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

3. We Came to America by Faith Rinngold

1997 Painted story quilt, acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border

Faith Rinngold’s powerful quilt-painting We Came to America, 1997 is a retelling (or restitching) of the many stories of coming and becoming Ameican. The spatial depth of the painting offers the whole path of the African American diaspora. Its horizon is a painful reminder of the slave boats burning in the background. The water is filled with drowning people, like a metaphor for hardship and the battle towards freedom and acceptance by Lady Liberty, who is now black and holding an infant. This piece is both a sharp social and political criticism and an image of tenderness, care and resilience. 

See the piece and learn more:

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Review: The NY Times “Colorful Patchwork Tales of Black and White, Life and Death”

4. Rückenfigur by Glenn Ligon

2009 Neon

Glenn Ligon’s Rückenfigur, 2009 is another examining of America. The flickering sign suggests that this might be an old sign and perhaps isn’t working all too well. The title Rückenfigur is an art term referring to a compositional device of depicting a figure from the back. This composition places the viewer as both standing on the outside and being implicated. 

In a video about his exhibition Glenn Ligon: America (The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2011) Ligon noted that this piece was conceived at a very moment in time in which America had its first black president while also being engaged in two wars and a crippling recession.

“I started using the word America because I was interested in Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. The novel has a very interesting opening paragraph. He says 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ "

Glenn Ligon, in a video about the exhibition Glenn Ligon: America, The Whitney Museum of American Art (2011)

See the piece and learn more:

Glenn Ligon Studio


5. Sundown by Xaviera Simmons


Text, paintings, photography, sculpture

The following text comes directly from the David Castillo Gallery website which can be found HERE:

“Many communities in the United States remain “sundown towns,” where Black Americans are not welcome after dark. The works assembled in Sundown draw from the multitude of threads which form the foundations of the contemporary American narrative- slavery, colonial America, the Antebellum South, the Jim Crow era, Black reconstruction, Black migration, and the Civil Rights era. The exhibition explores these legacies and the ways in which systemic prejudices have rendered major aspects of the American narrative virtually invisible; the effects of which reverberate into the present day.

In this rigorously researched body of work, Simmons engages with historical imagery, layering archival black-and-white images of American life across scenes that she as shifting characters inhabits. Sundown is to be considered in a chronological manner. The exhibition begins with Simmons’ signature text-based paintings, drawing from and abstracting language found in the diaries and observations of Christopher Columbus’ fateful encounter with the landscape now labeled America.”

Learn More and see the work:

David Castillo Gallery

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