Kerry James Marshall, “Great America”

"Great America"

Kerry James Marshall’s work focuses primarily on a later era that the Middle Passage; all the way to the Civil Rights Movement. But his acrylic and collage painting “Great America” (1994) is evocative of just that time. Unlike Williams’ incorporation of consumerist symbols, Marshall’s painting uses a more traditional approach, with a style more reminiscent of traditional Afro-Caribbean art. The work, however, still invokes the modern: the boat in the central of the painting evokes the Middle Passage (particularly as its occupants are tightly packed, and one in the upper-right hand corner appears to be drowning), but the central figures are in fact embarking on an amusement park ride, which, like Williams’ advertising iconography, wryly points out the connection of the 19th century to the modern. “Great America,” “Wow,” an amusement park; America, purportedly the land of the free, etc., certainly had to enslave a lot of people to live up to the moniker. “You have to put together what that means by adding up the elements. Black people always have to wonder,” says Marshall, “When did America become great for black folks?” The ghosts in the amusement park ride are halfway comical, halfway tragic—caricatured and goofy, they’re part-and-parcel with the amusement park. And yet they reach towards the passengers of the boat, attempting to grasp them; one wonders if the figure in the water was wrenched from the vessel by one of them. They’re on the one hand ridiculous, on the other eerily reminiscent of those who died in the Middle Passage, or survived it only to meet a gruesome death on land. The passengers don’t appear to have control over the direction of the boat as it veers into the dark tunnel; moreover, the water grows darker as it approaches the darker, making it seem all the more dangerous. The creepily cheerful “WOW” sign drips from the edges, as if it were blood. And finally, the boat is veering away from the American Cross symbol in the upper-left hand corner, the modern symbol of sanctuary and help for those who need it the most. There is no question that the figures in this painting are heading towards and ominous and certainly dangerous direction; the modern connections in the painting point to the fact that there’s no reason to believe that voyage remains in the past.

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