Cotton fields, popping with white buds and toiling bodies. Patsy’s house. Rows upon rows of sugar cane, almost swaying in a late summer wind. The kind of flour bread only someone’s mama can make right. Dinnertime outside in the cotton fields.
These images, vivid snapshots into artist Winfred Rembert’s time-tested mind, are some of the first to greet viewers at the beginning of Winfred Rembert: Amazing Grace, on view at the New Haven Museum now through June 21.
Rembert, who lives in Newhallville, has in recent years attained national recognition for his folk art, including a documentary about his life and exhibits from Harlem to Washington. In New Haven, meanwhile, he works largely in obscurity—a situation the new exhibit may address.
A grouping of his signature vignettes on dyed, carved, and tooled leather, the exhibition draws on polarizing, sometimes hard-to-stomach moments in Rembert’s life: growing up in the cotton fields of a rural and still very segregated Georgia; marching in a civil rights protest in 1960 that led to an arrest; his time on a chain gang, during which he learned to carve and tool leather from a fellow prisoner; and his experience in the Baptist Church.
The result is a show that yokes visual and material culture and oral history in a way that is new for the New Haven Museum and deeply thought-provoking for its visitors. Strains of Michael Roemer’s Nothing But A Man, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, and Romare Bearden’s Village collages run throughout, a persistent, sometimes painful reference to the past, but they mingle with the lope and thrill of jazz clubs, smoky pool halls, and baptismal fonts, as well as a voice that is entirely Rembert’s own. Like in “Cotton Field Rows” (2009), where he writes:
When you started down a cotton row picking and looked up, you couldn’t see the end. When I followed Mama down her row, it would take almost all day to reach halfway. The whole day would net about 150 to 200 lbs. or $4 pay. [Cotton field] rows — for me — was a way to find Maypops, and create animals, [and to] find stones and rocks to make things.
“The cotton fields ... that’s the first memory I could ever remember in my whole life. People have different things that they remember when they’re growing up ... my mother used to pull me around on the cotton sack as she picked,” he added at the opening, watching from a bench as viewers orbited around him, frenetic planets around a great, laughing sun.
For Rembert, it is also about time that these images got their due in the New Haven community.
“I am happy to be recognized by home ... New Haven here,” he said at this week’s opening. “I’ve always been worried about that — seemed like I got a lot of attention from other places across the country, and New Haven was late coming in, but they’ve come in with a bomb now, so I really like that.”
The roles of memory and nostalgia are so great in these works — “sometime I look at it and think of happy things, and sometime I look at that same picture and think of sadness ... I think they both carry their weight,” he confided of the works — that they create, in the space of two simple rooms, a visual and emotional tour de force.
There is, for instance, “Flour Bread” (2003), which literally paints a picture of maternal sacrifice: Rembert’s mother would wear a mask when she cooked because she could not inhale flour without becoming physically ill.
Or, switching tones, “Going To Church Late” (2009), in which the viewer can almost hear the clop and slosh of horses’ hooves breaking the surface of a pond on a Sunday morning.
Or “Looking for Winfred,” in which the viewer is challenged to find Rembert in a scene that engages the imagery of both the chain gang on which Rembert served and the realities of black overincarceration.
Together, these and others in the show don’t just leave viewers on the sharp edges of Rembert’s memory; they invite them to analyze the situation, to feel deeply for him, and then to stay for dinner.
“I think that Winfred does have a message of hope, that you can overcome things, he has dealt with so many problems in his life with amazing grace in the injustices that he has faced, and I think in that sense ... the fact that he’s been able to transform that into art, has been extremely compelling for the audience,” said Bartholomew F. Bland, deputy director of the Hudson River Museum and curator of the exhibition.
“Winfred Rembert: Amazing Grace” is curated by Bartholomew F. Bland, deputy director of the Hudson River Museum. The show is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue of essays by Bartholomew F. Bland; Roger Panetta, History Professor, Fordham University; Ellen Keiter, Chief Curator of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art; Clifton Watson, Director, African American Male Initiative (The Children’s Aid Society); and Irma Watkins-Owens, Associate Professor, African and African American Studies, Fordham University. To find out more, visit the New Haven Museum’s website.