This heartbreaking show consisted of Leo Twiggs’s “Requiem for Mother Emanuel”—a cycle of nine small paintings responding to one of the most horrific racially motivated hate crimes in the United States in decades. On June 17, 2015, a twenty-one-year-old white male gunned down nine people and injured three others, all black, during a night service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. After his capture, the gunman, a self-identified white supremacist, declared that his intention had been to ignite a race war. He was found guilty of thirty-three charges in federal court, and has been sentenced to death in South Carolina. Taking place as it did in one of the oldest black churches in the country—one that has served as an important site for protest and planning from the antebellum era to the civil rights movement and beyond—the Charleston massacre was also a devastating attack on Southern black pride.
Iconoclasm met iconoclasm. Incited by internet photos of the gunman posing with the Confederate battle flag, activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome, ten days after the shooting, scaled the flagpole at the State Capitol in Columbia to illegally remove the offending ensign, which had been flying there since the ’60s. Confederate monuments across the South were graffitied with statements like RACIST and, most often, BLACK LIVES MATTER. Compelled by vituperative public debates, the South Carolina General Assembly voted to officially remove the flag from the statehouse that July. For many, this was too little too late for a government that had resolutely defended Confederate symbolism as nonpolitical “heritage.”
A South Carolina native, Twiggs (b. 1934) has been making paintings of the Confederate flag since 1970. While the earliest are ghostly, more recent examples could be mistaken for Dixie kitsch if you didn’t know that they were by a black artist with a history of dealing with race and regional identity. With the new cycle, however, there is no doubt that the flag is a scourge. Created using a batik process, the nine paintings are each structured around a silhouette of the white facade and tower of Emanuel Church. The most condemnatory show the church literally stained by the Confederate flag, its red splattered across the raw cotton, with the number nine (representing the victims) or nine “X”s (echoing the flag’s intersecting stripes) arranged below. The more powerful works are overtly religious. One is inscribed with lines from the hymn and protest song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson: WE HAVE COME OVER A WAY THAT WITH TEARS HAS BEEN WATERED. WE HAVE COME TREADING OUR PATH THROUGH THE BLOOD OF THE SLAUGHTERED. Twiggs’s handling of form and color is clearly inspired by the Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting of his youth. But the art historical influence that matters most is Jasper Johns, whose images of the United States flag Twiggs has been paying homage to for decades. By including reference to Johns’s fairground shooting targets in his Mother Emanuel series, Twiggs interprets Johns as an artist not of the American vernacular per se, but of the vernacular of a region (Johns was raised in South Carolina) founded on systemic violence.
“My paintings are testimonies to the nine who were slain,” Twiggs says in a quote with which the exhibition’s introductory wall text begins. He adds: “For one shining moment, we looked at each other not as different races, but as human beings,” referring to the state’s decision to remove the flag, but also recalling the comments made by the victims’ families, who impressed the nation by expressing their forgiveness and prayers for mercy upon the gunman’s soul. For me, as an atheist and a white person whose understanding of forbearance in the face of racism is inevitably limited, such Christian sentiments are the most perplexing and thought-provoking aspects of Twiggs’s paintings and the local black community’s response to the shootings. The wall text, in the portion that follows Twiggs’s quote, brings this spirit home by mentioning the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a middle-aged black man, by a black police officer in Charlotte last September and explaining that “art can be a powerful means of initiating dialogue, inspiring hope, and bridging cultural and racial divides.” Yet considering the violence that erupted during protests in Charlotte and elsewhere against police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement’s emphasis on direct action, clearly not everyone believes that conciliation is the best way forward.