Visual Jazz - an interview with and portfolio of paintings by John Scott.
John Scott has mentored generations of fine artists, many of whom are professionally active as both artists and instructors. A prolific artist, he made his national mark as a scupltor. His teaching areas are: sculpture, modeling, carving (wood and stone), casting (bronze and aluminum), printmaking (relief, screenprinting, etching, and stone lithography), design (two - and three-dimensional), drawing, paper-making and calligraphy.
John Scott has exhibited widely, and frequently receives commissions for public art pieces. He is a 1992 recipient of the John D. MacArthur Fellowship, which is widely referred to as a "genius grant." This interview was conducted in the summer of 1992 as John Scott was in the midst of working on his new paintings which are featured on the cover and in the portfolio on pages 265-272.
ya Salaam: What do you define as art?
Scott: To me, art is life. I don't have a more specific definition. I think it's a way of recording whatever vignette of life struck you so hard that it's worth keeping. Whatever the medium is or whatever the language is, you have to be fluid in that language, and you have to use it eloquently. When you see a brother or sister dancing for example, the ones that you remember are the ones that do it eloquently, effortlessly; they make it look easy. To me that's art. Art's not going to a store and buying some brushes and paint, or going to school to learn technique. That's really paying your dues, like a griot does, in order to be able to the a story. It's not being able to read the music, but playing the music. I think that art is the marriage of the eloquence of the language and the content of the story.
ya Salaam: For a long time, you've been trying to get your art to move, to dance. At one point you began to use primal colors, but also you did a lot of reading of physics and began using kinetics. What was the impetus for that?
Scott: I've always wanted to make art that moved ... well, maybe not always, but twenty years before I started doing it, I wanted to do it. The thing that made me want that more than anything else in the world is that my people move. Black people are not static. They don't just talk to you like a militaristic person. Instead they move and they dance with their eyes and their hands. You see them in the street. We say more about who we are with the way that we walk than almost any other people.
Western sculpture - object making - is static. I wanted to somehow or another incorporate the life I found in my people into sculpture. Kinetic sculpture is that dance that's permanent; it's always there, but it never stops dancing. That was the idea, but I didn't know how to do it.
ya Salaam: So where did the physics come from?
Scott: Well actually the two things hooked up at the same time. In 1983, when we were working on "I've Known Rivers" [the African American exhibition at the New Orleans World's Fair], I got this invite from George Ricky to come up to New York and work out of his studios. George Ricky is an internationally known kinetic sculptor who established a foundation in upstate New York especially for sculptors. Ricky would invite sixteen people each year. So I went, and while working on sculpture I read a small piece of mythology. To this day, I don't know where that piece is, but it simply says that, when early African hunters would kill something, there would be a sense of remorse. The hunter would take his bow, turn it over, change the tension, turn the arrows toward himself and play. He would give a libational sound to the spirit of the animal who gives its flesh to feed his people. That hit me so hard, it was so beautiful, that I started making bow-shaped sculptures. As soon as I did that, it dawned on me that any line between two points was wave physics; it has length, frequency, amplitude - whether it's a banjo or guitar, telephone wires or my sculpture. All I would have to do was connect something to the wire, and it would dance.
If I did nothing else with my sculpture, I believed I had discovered an African American vocabulary: African mythology and Western technology put together. That started it, and ever since that time I have been mining that concept. I had the movement of our people. I had the celebratory color of our people and a visual vocabulary.
yo Solaam: What do you mean by celebratory color?
Scott: Well, colors that, when you see them, your soul feels good inside. They are not all gravy and mud - depressing neutral tones. Even when I use neutral tones, they're like spices and seasonings in the gumbo. I wanted colors that had flavor to them and moved, the same way a piece of music moves. That's what I wanted. So I had the color, I had the movement, and the minute I started putting the forms together, life started.
ya Salaam: In some of your pieces, the use of the color became geometrics in and of itself. For example, you would have a band of yellow, or a triangle of red. You didn't just paint with the colors, you also added shape.
Scott: Structure. I find that among African people, or I should say people of the East, usually even when they played there was an underlying structure. When you hear a bunch of drummers come together and start doing it, even when they are unprovising together, there is some kind of pattern that holds the thing together. Even when guys take off and solo, they're still within the form of the music. When I use color, I like to use loose brush strokes, dabs, and the rest of it, but it's all based on a pattern. One of the things critics say when they go around one of my pieces is that, even though it doesn't look like it's supposed to, it holds together. Same way with the music of Mingus, Monk, and Miles. Some of that stuff is supposed to fly apart, it's not supposed to stay intact, but it does.
ya Salaam: So as you painted on the pieces, the viewer could tell that the brush had been literally dripping with paint because it would be literally a straight line, but when you stood back, you could immediately see a pattern.
Scott: Right, it's there. Even when we dance ... you see kids breaking popping, or should-lining..: even though we may second-line in a straight line down the street, the line is not actually straight. We are not a rigid people. There's always an asymmetrical aspect of us. Even when I use geometric patterns, I do it asymmetrically. It's organically geometric.
ya Salaam: The lean.
Scott: Yes, it's always on the lean. That's it. Again, that's also part of the improvisation of it. I finally learned from the musicians how to incorporate improvisation in the making of my art. Improvisation is understanding the structure and then being free to operate over it.
ya Salaam: Structure informs rather than limits what you do. If you know the structure, then you can relate to it
Scott: Images to me are like melodies. If Satin Doll is the melody tonight, then depending on whomever I bring in .... The brushes, colors, etc. - those are my players. Any of them can solo. You will always hear each one of them individually - you can hear the drummer, the bass player, the guitar; you can hear the reds, the blues, the greens, you can hear them distinctly, individually - but they all agree. They still hold together. That kind of improvisation is what makes this happen. Again it relates right back to dance, and back to our people.
yo Salaam: Initially, I thought that what you had achieved was a break-through in terms of your sculptural work, but looking at your latest paintings, it's dear that you really have achieved a vocabulary for the visual representation of whatever you do. It's not confined to any one medium.
Scott: The way I look at media, and I've always been trained this way, is that media are like languages. A drawing might be English sculpture might be French; printing might be Swahili; etc. The way I look at it now is that the idea, the content itself, I can say in any of these languages, and I should be able to say it fluently. In fact, I'm trying to come out of a spherical reference; I should be able to listen to and use all of the languages. When I do a piece of sculpture, there are aspects in there that might be related to something only two-dimensional; or when I start working on a two-dimensional surface, there may be aspects in there that deal conceptually with three-dimensional space, or when I'm putting stuff down with a paint brusk I may be thinking about printing processes and techniques. In trying to think of them spiritually and work within the languages, I don't want the languages to be separated or isolated. All of these years it's been about developing a language, a vocabulary, so that I could freely throw words into it, feel good about it, and understand what I'm doing. This has allowed me to make images freely.
ya Salaam: Your new paintings are completely different from all of your earlier paintings, but at the same time one can easily see that it's your work. This new work is an extension of earlier work, almost as if you had distilled the essential elements of all your work in sculpture, printmaking, sketching and mixed media, as well as painting.
Scott: It's about understanding. At one point it was a struggle. It's like a kid first learning to play a horn: You have to constantly pucker your lips to play the horn. Now, it's about breathing the note without worrying about how to pucker the lips. At one point, I had to work to make a certain kind of brush mark Now, I think it and it happens. I'm comfortable enough now with technique that I don't have to think about technique anymore. That has to do with practice and age.
ya Salaam: We used to say, you learn the technique so that you can forget the technique, but until you learn it, you can't forget it.
Scott: I think that's what separates the younger artists from those of us who are older. A lot of times they try to imitate what we do by trying to get to the form that they see on the surface, not understanding how we work. They imitate the technique without understanding how to use the technique.
ya Sa laam: Or they just use technique, period.
Scott: Yeah, they think technique is art. It's not, it's just language.
ya Salaam: You call this "visual music." Obviously you have a reason for calling it that.
Scott: All those years that I was studying and working, trying to understand what this art is about, I looked at the work of other visual artists. I found out that the teachers who ended up teaching me how to do this were not visual at all; they were musicians. It was about beginning to use structure and form like a musician.
I didn't want to do what a lot of visual artists had done historically. They read sheet music. I wanted to play music. This has gotten me to the point that I'm able to play without reading the notes anymore. This has more relationship to music than it does to what we call Western visual art.
ya Salaam: In this series, it's very interesting that the female is the central figure.
Scott: That's a natural occurrence. The series started out with very abstract sculptured pieces, the gateway series - spirit gates, rites of passage, rituals. It contained the spirit rather than the form. In the process of building these pieces, it dawned on me that the most obvious spirit gate there is, is the female. We come through her for life, love, nourishment. So I decided I needed that melody around with which to play these tunes.
I also decided I needed to go back. Like most classical visual artists, I wanted to work from a live model.
yo Salaam: Why?
Scott: Young people work a lot from flat thing: images and photographs that somebody else has already done. That's a statement from somebody else. That's copying Shakespeare and putting your name on it. But when somebody alive is standing there, and you know how to delineate that form - you have the skills to put it down - then there's a certain spiritual quality that comes through and informs the image that you can't get from a flat image. Using a model also allows communication between the model and the artist, talking in the visual language. For example, I would say, "If you were the earth mother, how would you respond?" So you begin to get that in the work, and it informs the image.
I discovered things about the figure that I hadn't seen in a long, long time. The twist of an arm, the way a hip would move - you can use all of that, the way a great actor may use a hand gesture on the stage to complete dialogue. You're not just looking at the body, but rather seeing the subtleties. For so long, like most of us, I used to see the physical thing and think that is what it was about. Now, the physical thing is nothing more than a shadow. I can see the soul inside.
ya Salaam: In this series, the figures are clearly the base point, but what's happening with all this stuff on top of the figure?
Scott: I wanted to start with a figure and an attitude, but then I wanted to play over it with color, texture, shapes, and form. The same way Miles, Mingus, Max would take a tune, and each one of them would contribute something to that melody in order to make the melody unique, make it exist for that point and time only. That was my goal I wanted you to see the figure, but I did not want the figure to impose itself on you. I wanted it to be a part of the painting, so that when you look at these figures, you not only see the figures but you have to see the objects related to the figures. It's a whole thing, a vignette.
ye Salaam: The uses that you make of the technical innovations - the tape on the rollers, jagged pieces of metal to scrape some of the paint - it's like using the plunger on a trumpet or a mute on a trombone.
Scott: Exactly! You make a whole new sound. How many folk would have thought of putting a plunger on the end of a horn? A plunger is what you use to unstop a toilet. But it fits the horn perfectly. That's the same way I feel about tape on the roller. If I want a certain effect, I think about tools that I have done other stuff with. Why shouldn't I be able to use them?
yo Salaam: The question is, what were you trying to achieve? And what made you think of doing it that way?
Scott: I wanted these paintings to look and feel like the surface of an African mask. Those masks have been used ritually: Libations have been poured on them - blood or milk, or whatever. That leaves an encrustation on the surface, producing a patina. That patina, that encrustation, bears the footprints of living. That kind of feel marries the old country and our new place where we live now. It marries the patternation on the surface of the mask achieved through ritual, and it reflects the patternation of the urban environment. When we paint a building we don't scrap it all down clean, we paint over stuff. When you look at it from a distance, it may look slick and clean, but when you get up close, you see texture - lumps and bumps. I wanted lumps and bumps.
ya Salaam: Aesthetically, we as a people like something to shine, to reflect life, but we're not interested in something that's just slick because it doesn't reflect reality. Life is never smooth. There are always bumps.
Scott: Yeah, and even if you starch and iron it tight, when you pull it on, there's going to be a wrinkle. I want my work to have that. Some guy once said to me, "Your stuff never looks polished." Just for the hell of it, I broke open one of my sketchbooks and said, "Is this what you mean?" I can do that if I want to. I could sit in with the symphony and play that way, but that's not my music. Now, if you really need somebody to sit in and play that stuff, I can take care of it for you.
ya Salaam: In Afrocentric music, all the melodies are on a sound continuum. There's no such thing as the perfect pitch for each note. So you're never striving to have a given note sound the same way all the time.
Scott: Just living in the human condition, perfection is an impossibility. For a long time I used to try to draw the perfect object - an eye, for instance. But then as I matured, I realized that everybody's eye doesn't look alike; in fact, most folk's eyes don't even match. So when I make an eye in a drawing, why should I have some kind of rubber stamp that says, "This is an eye"? It's about being free enough to understand that each note is not the same: The pitch can change slightly, as can the intensity with which I play it, bow I lead up to it, whatever. It took me a long time to realize that you have to learn it, really learn it, so you can forget it.
ya Salaam: You're so free with this work that once you've got the basic form down it just goes out. It's totally free. When you see the basic sketches that you started with you say, "This is somebody who's studied art." But when you look at the finished product, you don't even think about somebody who's studied art. You just say, "Damn, how in the world did he do that? Look at that - all those colors and shapes jammed up together, and it works!"
Scott: It's like a lot of these young musicians who are doing all kinds of incredible things. They take a note and twist, stretch it, and you just marvel at them and say, "Wow." But you don't think those cats went to NOCCA and studied with Ellis Marsalis went to universities and conservatories, that they went into the woodshed and practiced for years. You don't think of any of that. I want it to be that way. I want people to look at these pieces and say, "That's so pretty."
ya Salaam: The other thing is, looking at the finished pieces, few people would believe that these started off as what might be called classic nude sketches.
Scott: No. And I don't want them to. My professors used to say, "If you're going to put something on the outside, it's best that you know what's holding the insides together." For these things to work, they had to have a beginning point, and since I had decided that the beginning point was going to be the human figure, I didn't want to come from a metaphysical or hypothetical human figure. I wanted a red person to deal with. Once I had that down, then I was free to take it anywhere I wanted to go.
ya Salaam: Is there any fear of overloading? You look at any one of these pieces in detail and as you move through the piece, you get so many different impressions. At one point you might think it's about one kind of thing - mood, technique, what have you - but then you go a half-inch down, and there's something else, something different.
Scott: I want these things to work like a fifty-voice gospel choir. You're going to have to wear the tape out to hear what each voice is doing. Every time you listen, you hear a little something you didn't bear the first time. I want to do that visually for a number of reasons. One, I don't want the work to get old quickly. It's not a billboard; I don't want you to run past it and see it all in one shot. There's so much there that you have to dig through to find it, and in the process you have to interact with it - just like you have to hear the music over and over. I want the pieces to work that way.
ya Salaam: And, as with the best of the music, it's clearly about something. But you have to use your imagination to find out what the specifics are.
Scott: You only see what you bring. When you hear Miles, Monk, Mingus, and the rest of those cats, if you don't listen, you don't hear. You bring your experiences to it.
ya Salaam: How did you decide what these pieces would be? Or maybe it wasn't a decision. What was the process? Obviously, you start from an actual sketch, a general figure study.
Scott: The general the beginning thing is like putting staffs on a page, setting up the bass line, or setting up a rhythm. Then you invite the players in to contribute to the development of the piece. The bass player might want to hit a certain note hard; the trumpet player might want to approach it in a different way. Once the painting starts happening, and the color starts going down, I just let it take whatever turn it's going to take.
ya Salaam: In essence, then, these paintings are really improvised in the sense that you didn't preconceive a final outcome. You didn't say, "I'm going to do this piece about pregnancy" or "I'm going to do this piece about anger."
Scott: The only thing that's preconceived is the pose. I asked the model a question, worked with the model and that shape went down on the paper, but that's it.
ya Salaam: Do you remember the specifics of each sketch?
Scott: No. Once the melody was written, I wanted to write another one. These pieces are kind of funny. I mean this may sound funny to people who read this, but just being in the room working with these pieces... they talk to you. I knew certain things had to happen, so I pushed it. Some of them were very difficult to finish. As small as these things are, you might think each took an hour or so to complete, but some of these pieces required over twenty hours because I would get to a point and the piece would shout at me, "No, this is not it." Others happened so fast it was scary. The time had nothing to do with realizing the idea.
ya Salaam: I guess that's part of their improvisatory nature. When it's your turn to solo, you can't say, "Well wait a minute." Sometimes you might take one chorus, sometimes you might take twenty.
Scott: Right. I had to make things happen. In fact, I should using tools all kinds of ways. For example, normally a brayer is for rolling down ink. In looking at a couple of these, I said, "Something else has to happen." It was like taking a horn and stuffing a tennis ball in it or something and saying, "What's going to happen if I blow through that?" So I wrapped the roller in string, or maybe tape, and when I would roll the paint on, instead of getting a nice clean line I would get a checkerboard. And then when I put a checkerboard on top of a checkerboard, all kinds of things started to happen.
ya Salaam: So this is painting but it's ... well, it's what I would call Negroidal painting. I believe that, in America, Negroes never let ignorance stop of us from doing something we want to do. So somebody like Errol Garner, who didn't formally know music, did not let that ignorance of reading music stop him from playing music.
Scott: Sometimes what happens, if you get into a vocabulary of something and you understand how the vocabulary works, is that you can grab a word that's not normally used the way you want to use it, but you stick it in and it makes all the sense in the world. In fack the word becomes more beautiful. Working in my little studio here, after having worked in sculpture, drawing, printmaking, calligraphy, and all of that, there are times I will take a verb from one of those other languages that has no business in painting, but it will work. For us as a people, being improvisational we don't have any fear of that. I don't want to sound egotistical but you become so self-assured that you will take the word you need and stick it in regardless of what the rules are.
ya Salaam: And if you don't have the word you need, you will make up the word.
Scott: You create the vocabulary. You know it's got to be in that solo. And like you just said, you can't sit back and say, "I'll create this tomorrow." You've got to do it when it's your time. The set is now. You have to do it now.
ya Salaam: Looking at the base sketches, it looks like you had to do them when they came to you - sort of like you didn't have time to go and get a big sketch pad or whatever.
Scott: I bought these big sheets of quality paper, 100% rag. But this idea had to be in small size, so I just tore the sheets up. Before the model arrived, I would tear up a stack of sheets and sit it on the table. The sizes were random. I didn't measure them out, size them, or anything. I just tore the pieces up and started working. If the drawing didn't work, I'd turn it over and draw on the other side. If that one didn't work, I'd throw it back on the table, grab another piece, and keep going. I kept those that housed the idea.
My sketch books are roughly the same size, so I'm so used to and comfortable with putting down an idea very rapidly in that size.
The other thing about this spirit gate concept is that, though these things are monumental in concept - any of these pieces could be twenty feet tall - I wanted to see if I could take the concept of monumentality and compress it down the same way an altar compresses down a universal spirit into a little bitty ritualized space.
ya Salaam: In the music we have the Ellington short pieces which compress so much into a small space. But there's something else happening. On the one hand, these pieces are a radical departure from a lot of the massive public art that you've done. On the other hand, those of us who know you know that you work in your sketch book all the time. We'll see you drawing while you're listening to music in a night-club, or sketching at a lecture or a meeting. A number of people have often said to you that you ought to do something with those sketches. In a sense, that's what you're doing now.
Scott: All those drawings, if I put them together, are really about one idea - trying to catch the spirit of the moment. When this particular series is finished, I want people to take these into their homes and have them there. They'll have this monumental idea scaled so that it can fit on a person's wall at home. The only way you can experience public art is to go where it is, whereas this can be in your space, and it's a one-on-one experience.
ya Salaam: The Afrocentric concept is the procession; the Eurocentric concept is the centralization of artistic display. For the visual artist in the Eurocentric context, the height of presentation is the gallery or the museum, where people have to come to it. Whereas in the Afrocentric processional concept, whatever it is that you've done, that you think is really good, you bring to and through the community. Is that what you're working toward?
Scott: Yeah, you take this art into your space, and then it's disseminated from your space by sharing it with all the people who come into your space. With public art, there's a different focus, because it has to meet a different kind of need. It's like building a temple and building an altar. The temple is the bigger need for the whole community, but the altar is the personalized spiritual interaction.
It's funny, because even the language that we're using right now to discuss these concepts ... we're talking around ideas that are housed in a spiritual kind of nature. I find more and more that the spirit is the guiding force behind the work. It's not about materials, not about physical concepts, it's about a certain kind of spirit. I'm beginning to understand how to deal with some of that.
ya Salaam: One of the qualities that comes to mind in looking at these pieces is the majesty of the stances.
Scott: I wanted strength. The matriarchal and patriarchal relationships in our history ... to me, it was never a fight, it was always an embrace, and it was called family. For a female figure to be strong and powerful does not mean it's dominant or condescending. I wanted forms that came from the woman herself.
Those who modeled for me were my friends, not "professional" models. These were all people whom I've known for a long time, people who trusted me and understood what I was doing, people with whom I share a history We exchange ideas, and they reflected that in how they modeled for me. I wanted them coming out of their strength. I wanted intimidated by that in fact, I was celebrating that. If you're going to be the mother of this next generation and you come off lame, that's not going to cut it. You must have strength.
ya Salaam: What I hear in your voice sounds similar t musicians' making a breakthrough stylistically. They figure out something and say, "I'm going to do this, I'm going to push it all the way. I don't care if nobody else understands it, I've got to go with this."
Scott: Yeah, it's that kind of feeling. I've hit a vein; it's mine, and it's got something in it I'm going to find out if it's fool's gold or if it's real but I've got to push it. My only thing right now is time. I wish the day were forty-eight hours because twenty-four is just not enough.
ya Salaam: Do you think there's a Southern aesthetic to what you're doing?
Scott: I think that if, when we use the term Southern aesthetic, we mean that which is dose to the earth, and the earth dose to the work, then yes. The Northern thing, and I've just come back from a residency in Philly ... there's an urban sense which really is about imposing oneself on a space rather than being a part of the space. I think the difference between urban and Southern - not that some parts of the South are not urban - is that in the South there is still a love and respect for the space. In other places, it's the things that are imposed on the space. Here in New Orleans it's the spirit of the place. I couldn't define it beyond that, but I felt the difference when I was in Philly. It's really about functioning in your own space. It's sort of like a griot thing: If you're not working for your village, then you're kind of lost. You can't do it for the tourists.
ya Salaam: What do you mean, you can't do it for the tourists?
Scott: I'm saying that these pieces come out of my soul. This is what I do naturally. But if you take me somewhere - the Smithsonian, for instance - sit me in a room and say, "Demonstrate to people what you do and make it authentic" . . . well it can't really happen. But when I'm here working and interacting with my environment, thinking my thoughts, experiencing my reactions, this is what I produce. It's not about impressing people with technique, with brush strokes or how well I can draw. I can demonstrate technique, but it's not the same as producing this work. This is not for tourists. I guess it's like what Ellis says, "Those who listen to applause, play for applause." I don't want to play for the applause.
ya Salaam: What is the relationship of all of this to your teaching? You've been teaching for a long, long time, over twenty years - and not just teaching a class here or there. You've been the head of the art department at Xavier; you do administrative work. How does this all fit in, especially in the context of that time thing?
Scott: First of all I'm a lifetime student. Basically all I'm trying to do is learn. In the twenty-six years I've been at Xavier, all I've learned boils down to how much I don't know. I believe that, if anything is given to you the ancestors expect for you to pass it on. If you don't, it ceases. It's like owning a butterfly: The minute you dose your hand into a fist to hold on to it, the butterfly is crushed, it's dead. You have to keep your hand open, so that the butterfly can come at will and leave at will. Well my butterfly is the ideas I get about art. When I come into my studio to work, and I get a new idea, almost immediately I try to figure out how can I use that idea as a seed to fire up a particular student. It's not like trying to teach the students as one big, monolitic mass. Each kid has a certain strength, and I might find one little thing and that's it.
I don't see teaching separated from the creative act, and I don't see either separated from raising my family. It's all about living. It's all connected - just different facets on that diamond called life.
If I didn't pass on what I was doing, it would die. I totally reject that old crap about those that cart, do, and those that can't, teach. All the great masters whom I respect were all great teachers, because they were not selfish enough to want what they had to die when they died. They wanted to pass it on. I cannot foresee a time when I would not want to have some young people around me to whom I could pass on what I'm doing. If you don't pass it on, then what you're doing is hollow.
You know, it's funny, but when these things started happening, the first people I called were my students. There's an analogy that I use a lot which relates to what we're talking about here. When we come into the world, we have our noses against the mirror, and all we see is ourselves. The way I see life is that I have to move as far away from that minor as I can. When I get to the point where I can see everything in that mirror but me, that's the first time I've seen me. I begin to see a universe in myself because I'm a part of that. When I was born, I saw me as the universe. But when I start moving away, I see the universe is me.
ya Salaam: Why do you think's it's taken so long for the visual arts to develop among African Americans in comparison to the music?
Scott: When we were brought here, the visual arts and musk were even. However, we were allowed to maintain and develop our musical language as an entertainment thing for other people, whereas we were forced to subjugate the visual arts to total utilitarian work - brick work, carpentry, masonry - to somebody else's purpose. Also people realized that, when you deal with the visual you deal with signs and symbols that could be codified for other uses, and they suppressed that. It was suppressed for a very long time, to the point that we internalized the suppression. It wasn't until the Harlem Renaissance - and, before that, Henry O. Tanner - that you even started to see images that looked like us. Before that, the images were always of somebody else. Really, we haven't been working in the visual arts for a very long time. It's really astonishing the amount of ground we have covered in so short a period of time.
ya Salaam: My theory is that there was deliberate discouragement of anything African that we did. Music is ephemeral, so we could make it as Black as we wanted to. Two minutes later there was no residue, no evidence. It resonated within us, but there was no physical manifestation. Whereas if you did a painting, there it was. It became, "Somebody did this, and somebody gon' tell me who did it, or all of y'all gon' suffer!' - that kind of thing. Also, African American culture became the culture of the mask. The first generations born here had to subjugate their African elements, so in order to express the African elements you put a mask on it. Since we came from cultures of the mask, we understood that. This mask represents something. But subsequent generations related more to the mask than to what the mask actually meant, because so much got lost in the translation, so much was subjugated and not allowed to be expressed. By the time we come along, we don't even know that much of what we see and sense is actually a mask
Scott: Right. We think the mask is the real deal. It's like the second line. When I was doing research for the 'I've Known Riven" exhibit, I came across this aspect of Yoruba culture which says that, if it rains when you're buried, you've lived a very good life. So in the second line on your way to the cemetery, the umbrellas are closed Soon as the body is put in the ground, the umbrella pop open - figuratively, it starts to rain. I'm more than sure that most of those cats participating in that ritual have no idea why the umbrella open when the body goes in the ground. We made it rain spiritually for the brother or the sister when they were put into the ground. The mask is the umbrella - but what's the meaning behind the symbol? We're still doing the ritual but we don't know the meaning.
In the visual arts we continued to make quilts. We did walking sticks. We did ceramics, made baskets and pots. We did brick work with geometric patterns on it. We did carpentry that had some details on it. But we didn't do it in any heavy-duty, big-time way. We did it at home in small ways. Those thing were there as masks, but we lost much in the translation. What we have to do is create a whole new language.
ya Salaam: Indeed, that's the central point. We are actually creating languages, visual and verbal languages, to express our inner essences.
Scott: We're making the blues visual. When those early brothers and sisters fused the African and the Western elements in music, they produced the blues and gospel. They created our sacred sound by making our new sound. I think that the Black Aesthetics, or what we call the Black Aesthetics, is a language we create by fusing that which is in our souls with that which is in our minds (that which we have been taught in the Western context), and we're coming up with a blues line that's all ours.
ya Salaam: Part of the process is figuring out how to do the fusion, but also there's the problem of figuring out the language and the rationale to make it happen. It's beyond technology. It's not a question of understand per se. It's a question of understanding what it is we're trying to achieve.
Scott: That's the most difficult thing about creating anything - developing the language with which to do it That's where the wrestling has to take place. You have to believe in and perfect the use of the language. You have to do all those things that it take to make it real. There are an awful lot of Africans Americans beginning to do a lot of this, but it's hard. You're going to see a lot of work that tries to imitate and emulate African forms, but a lot of that is imitating form without content. You also see a lot of work that tries to imitate and emulate Western forms, but that too is form without content We have to fuse the two, fuse our African souls and our Western intellects. The other stuff you get is airport art and tourist trinkets, in my opinion. I want folk to understand dearly that this is my opinion about what I'm doing. It's not about putting anyone else down. This is how I see my work, what I'm doing, why I'm doing, and also why I'm not doing certain things.
ya Salaam: It's basically a question of codifying and prioritizing what it is you want to be about. You're not saying that there ought not to be art in airports. You're simply saying that's not what you're doing.
Scott: Right. I don't want to be a billboard maker. I don't want to take sacred things and make them mundane. I don't take sacred elements and make mediocrity.
ya Salaam: In fact, that has been the history of our people: Our sacredness has been commercialized.
Scott: Other people exploited our sacredness for their entertainment rather than participating in the sacredness of our rituals. I think that has happened for too long. En fact, it's a minstrel show, and we get caught up in it.
Another aspect of this has to do with something I tell my students all the time. I hear some of them saying, "I'm going to be an African artist." I tell them "You cant." You can be an African American artist, and you can make that "A" as big as you want to, as big as the Empire State Building. That's no problem because that's who you are. But unless you understand the rites behind the mask in the village, and all the rituals that make the mask real you can't turn that into art. You can learn all the chisel marks, the symbols, and the techniques, but you have to put a soul behind what you're doing. And the soul you put behind it is not going to be the old soul; it's going to be a new soul and the creating and shaping of that new soul is frightening as hell, because we don't know what it's going to be. To me, after so many years of doing this, rather than being frightened, I'm excited. Hey, I've got a chance to put a new mark on the slate that hasn't been there before!
Unfortunately, I still see a lot of young people trying to speak in a language within which they will never be accepted.
ya Salaam: Not only won't they be accepted, but such a language cannot encode their thoughts. They can't speak with it, because it doesn't have the words and the concepts they need to express the essentials of their beings, their history, their day-to-day struggles, and their future aspirations. In fact, a definition of the artist might be the person who uses language (whatever the language or the medium might be) to express the soul.
Scott: One thing I always try to add to any of these interviews is this: I do not refer to myself as an artist. If in my lifetime I do anything worthy of being called art, then somebody else will have to refer to me as an artist. I can't give that to myself.
In the West, we have bastardized certain sacred terms. As a result, certain words have lost their real meanings. The word artist is really important to me. It is a sacred term. I cannot diminish or demean that word by imposing that title on myself. I've tried to explain that to a lot of people, but I don't think one writer has yet put that concept down.
ya Salaam: That's a concept that comes out of communal societies. In those societies, no one can proclaim themself the leader. The group has to say that you're the leader.
Scott: Right, they'll give it to you. That's the way I feel. I hope that I can pass on to my students that the fact of being recognized for what you do is an elevation and a humbling experience simultaneously. Hopefully, it will make them look at themselves in a different way. I want to celebrate in the mastery that they are learning, and I want them to feel strong and positive about it. But at the same time, I want them to realize that, every time another step is revealed to them, there are two more steps to go. If you get too involved in celebrating your own mastery, you're no longer a master.
ya Salaam: You're making a distinction between those who master technique and those who master passing on of the spirit.
Scott: Yeah, it's the difference between a griot and an historian. The historian masters the technique, the griot masters the spirit. I don't know where these ideas came from or where they started with me, but I know they are important.
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|Title Annotation:||Black South Fiction, Art, Culture|
|Author:||Salaam, Kalamu ya|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1993|
|Previous Article:||Rebellious energy.|
|Next Article:||The fusion of ideas: an interview with Margaret Walker Alexander.|