Train in vain: “Buffet Flat” provides a
glimmering metaphor for the self-indulgent life Bessie Smith led after
she became a musical sensation.
Blues musicians had it at least as bad
as “thug” rappers today. The hard times and rough living that blues
songs describe were all that Bessie Smith knew. Her life was filled
with jealousy and violence. Smith was tough: She got stabbed fighting
with a man, used her fists on both men and women, threw a rival off a
train and famously shot at her cheating husband with his own handgun.
Heavy drinking and marijuana use helped
fuel the danger. She spent a little time in prison. Like her mentor Ma
Rainey (whose life will be recounted in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,
Sept. 8 through Oct. 4 at Syracuse Stage) she was promiscuous with both
sexes. She was no angel but her voice had an almost supernatural power.
Her fearless and unapologetic attitude are heard loud and clear in
lyrics like, “Burn me ’cause I don’t care.”
Adkins refers to his works as “recitals”
to differentiate them from isolated pieces of art. “I recover and
re-enact those I choose to honor. I immerse myself in their story, and
then allow it to come back out, filtered by the creative imagination,”
he says. Adkins also respects the anonymous tradition in art. Before
the Renaissance, artists were seen not as inventive geniuses, but as
craftsmen in the service of higher ideas. Adkins puts himself at the
service of Bessie Smith’s soul.
Adkins gives himself a difficult
task—making an absent person’s presence palpable, populating his shrine
with evocative materials and items. Layers of parachute material dangle
from the high ceiling like an enormous and ornate evening gown in
“Nenophar.” A dress like that would be strong enough to save your life.
Strings of pearls are lavished carelessly along the bottom.
“Coahoma” also echoes Smith’s physical
shape. Its curvaceous body consists of six stacked metal bowls that
look like reflectors for stage lighting. A megaphone provides an escape
for all that pent-up energy at the top of the 10-foot tall structure.
The whole thing balances precariously on some circular wire grills that
look like flattened crinolines.
“Audience” is a grid of drawings on
architectural drafting paper. Outline drawings take their form from
traditional African abstractions of the human body. They overlap in the
mostly white space. Bits of reviews like “…absence of mulattoes, burst
into hysterical, semi-religious shrieks of sorrow and lamentation…” are
typed in the margin. A peacock presides over the group from atop a
tower of milk crates.
Other stuffed birds roost about the
space. Their colorful plumage makes them exotic—all dressed up and
preening for mates. Their presence is also a reminder of the
possibility of flight, or of ritual sacrifice.
Imagining the gallery as a shrine,
“Buffet Flat” would be the main altar. The title refers to the private
train car Smith traveled (and indulged herself) in at the height of her
popularity. A tall rusty wheel strengthens the symbolism of a movable
feast. It is attached to a rugged wooden box set with three gleaming
silver punch bowls, their golden interiors lined with glass beads. More
of the gleaming marbles wait to refill the bowls in a long leather case
on the floor. Silver spoons ring the lip of the large center bowl in a
gesture of eternal offering. Two identical sculptures in mirrored glass
sit below, inside the box, perhaps representing passengers. The
organic, bulbous shapes seem equally inspired by modernists like
Constantin Brancusi and traditional African art.
A second gallery offers a chance for a
more direct experience. It is dominated by a movie clip, edited by
Adkins. Smith’s stubby fingers caress each other slowly, folding and
unfolding. Her head sways and her lips move to unheard music while her
eyes roll back ecstatically. Viewers are encouraged to let Smith’s
powerful voice ring out again by playing a special keyboard.
Adkins has worked on projects that
commemorate other underappreciated figures like the abolitionist John
Brown, scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and his father
Robert Hamilton Adkins. Adkins remembers sitting on his father’s
shoulders in the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. during the “I Have
a Dream” speech. It is this memory that steels him in his belief that
“Art needs to be more than just something to look at.” His work reminds
us that these people aren’t mere footnotes, but influential ancestors
that deserve to be remembered in majesty.
Songs of Hearth and Valor: Recital in 8 Dominions, After Bessie Smith
will remain on display until June 7. A closing celebration takes place
Wednesday, May 30, at 6 p.m. with a free performance from the Lone Wolf
Recital Corps with special guest, musician, composer and educator Bill
Cole. The Warehouse Gallery, 350 W. Fayette St., is free and open
Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call