Former Creative Alliance resident artist Joseph Norman is back, with a massive mural of the slave trade
Published: September 28, 2011
The Middle Passage Mural
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Perching at the top of a ladder, Joseph Norman, 54, draws a silhouetted human form onto one of hundreds of sheets of paper covering the wall at the Creative Alliance. The figure is the centerpiece of “The Middle Passage Mural,” the most ambitious work of Norman’s long career as an artist.
“It’s the last person to be forced into the door of no return on the slave ships and so it has to look universal, so everyone can get it,” Norman says.
A big man with a touch of gray in his beard, Norman wants his 10-foot-by-100-foot mural to address the Middle Passage—the centuries-long slave trade route by which millions of people in Africa were brought to the New World—in a unique way. “I wanted to take out all of the sentimentality,” he says. “I didn’t want you to feel bad because I look like this person and you look like that person. That doesn’t get us anywhere. There are no perpetrators in this work. To be universal, it has to be hieroglyphic.”
Norman draws on the fierce and visceral visual languages of German expressionism and late Picasso, while struggling with the sheer scale of his subject. “Some people liken this to Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’” he says. “But that was a single event [the Fascist bombing of a town during the Spanish Civil War]. This is the forced relocation of 14 million people over a period of 400 years. You can’t address this subject with something small. You need a symphony.”
Four distinct movements—divided by style and tone as well as the contours of the wall itself—make up this symphony, but within each are 100 individual drawings. From afar, the individual pictures create dense layers. But up close, each image demands attention. At least that’s what the first half of “The Middle Passage Mural” looked like two days after Norman came to Baltimore from the University of Georgia, where he has been teaching drawing and painting since 2002. The wall to the left of the black figure he had just painted was covered by roughly 200 drawings, many of which had been completed at Norman’s studio in Georgia. But everything to the right—nearly 200 blank pieces of paper and a 50-foot stretch of wall—would be finished “in real time,” as Norman put it, which meant that he had less than two weeks before the opening, two weeks to complete several hundred drawings and actualize nine years of planning.
Norman grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Early on, he had hopes of playing pro football or baseball and gave little thought to art. He even won a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff. But a knee injury forced Norman out of sports, so he began to focus on making art under the tutelage of Terrance Corbin, a noted African-American artist and intellectual. Corbin was a major influence on Norman and directed him toward the German expressionist style that remains among his greatest influences.
Norman earned a master’s in art education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1985 and another in drawing from University of Cincinnati in 1986. By this time, he had begun working in lithography. “It is so athletic,” he says. “You’re lifting stone, dealing with acids and chemicals, hydraulic presses. It feels like you’re working.”
From the beginning, Norman addressed difficult topics in black history. An early series of prints, called “Strange Fruit” after the song about lynching sung by Billie Holliday, depicts exquisitely rendered corpses of fish hanging from trees. He sold work to museums and galleries, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, and a series of private collectors, Oprah Winfrey and Morgan Freeman among them. He taught in Rhode Island and lived periodically in Germany, Cuba, Spain, Canada, and Costa Rica, where he continued to make lithographic series—“Out at Home: The Negro Baseball League” and “Notorious” among them—until sometime around 2000 when he found himself on the verge of financial ruin.
He also, he says, felt artistically bankrupt. “I just wasn’t interested in the whole thing of making little images to sell,” he says. He took a job teaching at the University of Georgia and, though he’s filled dozens of sketchbooks with plans for the mural, he has only occasionally shown new work since. “In 2003, I quit making pictures altogether,” Norman says. “I lost friends, dealers, patrons, and collectors. They figured I’d already done everything I was going to do, and so they forgot about me.”
In late 2009, Norman took a leave of absence from the university to focus on the mural. At the suggestion of Leslie King Hammond, a supporter of his work and the founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he moved to Baltimore. Living as a resident artist in the upstairs studios of the Creative Alliance, among much younger artists, the former athlete went into training mode. “I couldn’t go down without giving it one big shot,” he says. As a resident artist, he continued to fill sketchbooks with drawings for “The Middle Passage Mural”—but he also began to create definite plans for the final project.
Eventually, Norman—who has since moved back to Georgia—plans to convert “The Middle Passage” charcoal drawings into lithographic murals he’d like to see installed on the six continents affected by the slave trade. “We have monuments where people can go to lay their trouble down, but there is nowhere to publicly deal with this major aspect of our history,” he says. “I don’t want to go back to Africa. I love being from America, and I am deeply committed to the Western artistic tradition. But we have to look at this.”
After a week of late nights, the mural was largely complete. On the first wall 100 drawings of fruit, branches, leaves and limbs jostle together to create a jungle scene that recalls both Rousseaus (the “naive” painter of jungle scenes and the philosopher of the “Noble Savage”). Hands, drawn with simple black lines, frame the sun on the horizon. Bare footprints follow animal tracks. Then toward the corner, the hands reappear, but this time they frame a ship.
On the second wall, the pastoral scene takes a violent turn, bursting with cartoonish faces contorted by anguish, fear, and anger. A cannon fires against spears. Skulls, chains, and dead fish (a recurring motif in Norman’s work) float around the battle. The cannon returns in a large ink drawing, exploding into the gnashing teeth of hairless screaming heads. Then a series of men tied in rope, just before the door of no return.
What follows is far darker—literally and figuratively—than even the most gruesome scenes that preceded it. Slashed and smudged lines create the contours of too many body parts, too many faces, all smashed, bent, and twisted to fit into the rectilinear space of the hull of a ship. In the next panel, a crowd of hands seems to be rushing up to the deck in revolt. There are more firing cannons, rifles, and flames beneath a ghostly rigging reaching up to the sky.
Then the mural fades to black. Rippling lines stand in for water, filled with drowning people and swarming fish. The white chalk lines make the wall look, appropriately, like a crime scene. Beyond, a skeleton lies above a row of ships. Below the ships, what seem to be ancestors dance. The whole is framed by a drawing of woodgrain that suggests a stockade. There is a cross, and the hands once again framing the sun.
Norman is rarely at a loss for words, but standing there surrounded by the conflagration of nightmare images that he has nurtured for so long, he seems a little stunned. “This is it,” he says.
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