not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Terry Adkins (1953-2014)
Native Son (Circus), 2006 (fabricated 2015)

Can a sound be a portrait? With a deep fascination for music, and particularly the free jazz of performers such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Terry Adkins developed an interdisciplinary practice that fused sculpture with performance and sound. As he once explained in an interview, “My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be, and sculpture as ethereal as music is. It’s kind of challenging to make both of those pursuits do what they are normally not able to do.”

The protagonist of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) was Bigger Thomas, a poor Black youth who, in the wake of a horrific crime, gradually becomes aware of the denial of his humanity by White society. The low mound of cymbals that make up Native Son (Circus), hovering just above the floor at ankle height, hiss softly at irregular intervals. It is, perhaps, less a portrait of Bigger Thomas than the sonic translation of his simmering antipathy, the same anger the jazz greats admired by Adkins made over into music.

Click here to hear Sharon Ball talk about this work.

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