Joyce Scott makes you think about the uncomfortable things you’d rather forget. She goes her own way, in person and through her work, existing as a palpable, potent life force. Joyce Scott is not afraid to tell the truth.1
Scott’s Lynched Tree (2011/2015) acts as an artist’s statement for Truth and Visions, her current exhibition at MOCA Cleveland organized by independent curator Patterson Sims. As the wall text suggests, this work reminds us that human beings, if unchecked, will rape, exploit, and destroy all under our dominion. This “tree,” for instance, is a monumental figure of a woman hanging by her heels, her body emptied out, the fabric of beads that forms her skin folding in on itself. Limbs of glass are scattered on the floor along with loose beads and a dream catcher as variety of other debris spills out like blood or the contents of a broken purse. At once it reminds us of southern America’s history of lynching black men, the equivalent horrors committed against women, and our rape of the natural world. All of this is simultaneously in the work, brought to the fore by a sense of awe inspired by the intricate, highly crafted beauty of the female figure.
At first glance many of the pieces in the exhibition seem like souvenirs—small, picturesque and delicate, mementos perhaps, collected from travels. The works, however, are unflinching in what they present. They explore the darker sides of humanity: rape, murder, and the exploitation of one people by another. Still it is perhaps appropriate that we call these works souvenirs because what they do mostly is remind.
The series of pieces from Day After Rape refers in particular to the rapes and murders of women resulting from the conflict in Darfur in Sudan’s western region. More broadly, however, they prompt us to acknowledge the ongoing targeting of women as mothers, wives and daughters, and their bodies, all too often weapons of war. In other individual pieces, we see a woman hog-tied and bleeding vaginally, a baby with his mother’s severed head, a decapitated female torso. These beaded sculptures are deeply disturbing precisely because they reference events all too real. Jarring and beautiful, they fall into a lineage alongside Francisco Goya’s early 19th century Disasters of War series.
Bead upon bead, tightly and expertly knitted into figurative forms, Scott’s work records endless hours of meditation on these histories of human loss and suffering. It is as if Scott has somehow located the contours of these psychic traumas, manifested them in material form, and given them their due.
Like many of the materials and objects that Scott selects, the beads have multiple codings or translations. There is a particularly long tradition of bead production and in Africa, found among the artifacts in King Tut’s tomb.2 More ominously, beads were used by European traders and so-called explorers in their conquest and quest for colonization of both African and Native American cultures. Trade beads, sometimes known as “slave beads,” were often used as currency to purchase a vast variety of goods, ranging from food to people.3 In Scott’s work, beads reference each of these histories, embodying the products of a shared humanity. Here they signify the things we value, the things we will trade and the currencies of our culture.
Studying these works, we are implicated uncomfortably and to varying degrees, not by our participation in some past but through our perpetual forgetting of it and in our willful blindness to the present: a blindness manifested as ambivalence or apathy that allows this narrative of violence and exploitation to continue. Scott’s “souvenirs” powerfully disrupt our forgetting. They disturb and seduce simultaneously, and perhaps through this process of remembering, they will bring to us to awareness and maybe even change.
Lane Cooper, an Associate Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and practicing artist, holds an MFA in Painting. View more articles by Lane Cooper.