In a 2011 video interview with PBS's "Craft in America," Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott talked about how she confronts race in her work. "I do have anger about [racism] and one of the great ways I deal with it is to make artwork that allows, in fact beckons people, to come to it," she said. "I want it to be so beautiful that they can't stop staring at it and as they see it they have to figure out what that issue means to them. Crackin' the door just a little bit."
Surrounded by Scott's impeccable glass and intricate beaded sculptures, displayed on platforms or looming out from walls at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I cannot stop staring at the piece hanging on the back wall: the four-foot-wide 'Nuanced Veil,' made entirely of thousands of tiny, glinting beads. In it, people of varying ages—along with disembodied faces, arms, hands, and skeletons—overlap and topple over each other, connected by a subtle, thin web of beads. The scene's left half prominently features pearly white beads, while the right side is visually heavier, with beads that appear black, but on closer inspection are all different shades: purpley-brown, deep velvety green, and dark, ruddy purples and blues.
Scott won the inaugural $50,000 Mary Sawyers Imboden prize, the biggest award from the Baker Artist Awards (Scott's work, along with that of the other winners—Jen Grow, Matt Porterfield, Naoko Maeshiba, and Bill Schmidt—is on display at the BMA through Sept. 11), and her work showcases her strengths as a storyteller and master of materials, while toying with arbitrary distinctions between fine art, craft, and kitsch.
Here, in 'Nuanced Veil,' some of the sprawling, darker figures appear to be in distress, floating, hanging, and running; the white figures seem less chaotic, more at ease—a drop of gold drips onto one man's head, connoting, perhaps, the way that lighter skin is favored in a white supremacist society. But then, Scott uses a painterly language of color and light to reconcile that. When mixing black paint, the more colors you mix into it, the deeper, richer, and more interesting the shade becomes. Here, light passes through and bounces off of the beads, showing a similar beautiful multiplicity.
Issues of race (and, by extension, perception and prejudice) crop up in Scott's work in many complicated ways, especially in the pieces featuring black people with albinism. In 'Decapitated Tanzanian Albino Boy Head,' a white-beaded boy's head (with yellow cornrows and eyebrows) sits on a plinth, connected by a long metal chain to a ghostly glass-blown head. Though the idea of the severed head and the ghost of it—and the question of why this Tanzanian boy was decapitated—are all horrifying, there's a significant level of emotional remove from realism. It's more like a spectacle. The most viscerally unsettling part of this piece is actually that metal chain, the links so clunky, clean, and sharp that it might cut you if you were to pick it up.
In 'Ancestry Doll: 3' a small figure attached to the wall wields long, thin, wooden Malawian figure sculptures rather than legs and arms. His face, also beaded white with yellow hair, is haunting. That Scott explicitly refers to Tanzania and Malawi—two countries in East Africa where albinism is prevalent, and where people with the condition are increasingly likely to be killed, maimed, or mutilated for it—in these works suggests she wants you to keep digging into it, if you didn't already know. "Superstitions feed myths that albinos are ghosts, sorcerers or demons who have been cursed and, when hunted and killed for body parts, bring good luck to others," wrote the Washington Post in 2015. There are also reports of albino body parts from some of these areas being sold on a black market, and the Post suggests that election season is a more dangerous time for those with albinism because some politicians consult witch doctors who use albino body parts for divination. It almost seems unreal, this set of messy, systemic problems coupling with superstitious fears, dire poverty, and a misguided hope for wealth.
Looking at the show as a whole, there are cyclical and circular repetitions: birth, growth, terror, death. Some of these play out in layers. The beaded veil that covers the white glass figure 'Milk Mammy' is a constricting shroud—and calls to mind the black wet nurse, a black female slave made to nurse white women's babies. Around the hem of this dark blue veil, like roots, are ancestors, perhaps, that dance around underneath the figure we can't see. Nearby, 'Pretty Girl Veiled,' a wooden Nigerian sculpture of a woman, wears a large beaded dress and a gauzy black fabric veil over her head. The veil hangs down the back of the woman, attaching a small white child figurine to the lower part of the dress, sort of an amniotic ball and chain.
In a nearby case sits 'War Baby,' a fiery red, gold-flecked Murano glass baby figure wearing a white beaded outfit (somewhat like a christening gown and bonnet). The baby sits with her head cocked to the side, a sort of weary confused expression. Her legs and arms are disfigured, backward, and on her dress are small old photographs of black babies. Exemplary of what Scott has said about how she uses anger in her work, the piece evokes a difficult response to the historic, domestic war of racism and oppression, which has not yet gone away. Things may look a little different now than they did 150 years ago, but we are still raising our children in similar conditions and, Scott seems to ask, when will we make it better for them?