Dawolu Jabari’s large-scale drawings in Lessons from Above: Constellation Quilts at Galveston Artist Residency embed Black history, mythology, and folklore into the fabric of the cosmos.
Lessons from Above: Constellation Quilts
October 9–December 18, 2021
Galveston Artist Residency
Since its founding in 2011, Galveston Artist Residency has provided artists with living quarters, studio space, and funding to develop a body of work to be exhibited in the gallery culminating their tenure on the island. In this past cycle, Houston artist Dawolu Jabari produced four large-scale mixed-media drawings, a sculpture, and a light installation with subjects and techniques—including quilting and “shotgun” house construction—mined from African American history in his exhibition Lessons from Above: Constellation Quilts.
Citing ancient societies such as the Greeks and Romans who wove their legends in the fabric of space, Jabari creates new constellations inspired by heroes from American history who have been forgotten or excluded from historical archives because of the color of their skin. In these new drawings, blue and gold accessories ranging from weapons to tools and ornaments visually link these works with the graphic style of Jabari’s earlier works—reimaginings of African American stereotypes as empowered superheroes belonging to comic book universes parallel to those built by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Paintings from the early 2000s that recast racist tropes, such as Mammy in Jabari’s Twinkle, Twinkle Little Tar (2009) in Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s collection, earned the artist national recognition from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation in 2009. During the early part of his career, Jabari participated in exhibitions in Houston and beyond, including shows at the Lawndale Art Center, Blaffer Art Museum, and in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, Day for Night. In addition to exhibiting work as an individual, Jabari also belongs to the art collective Otabenga Jones & Associates with Jamal Cyrus, Kenya F. Evans, and Robert Pruitt. The Houston-based collective, which has exhibited at Project Row Houses, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and the Menil Collection, carry forward the personal charge in their group shows “to teach the truth to the young Black youth.”
Despite the visual connection of these new drawings to Jabari’s earlier body of work, Lessons from Above: Constellation Quilts transcends beyond reclamation and asserts an elevation of Black legends from historical facts to interstellar status.
Cuchushayrurlulesush Jujaycuckuksushohnun Fufrurenuncuchush (Charles Jackson French) portrays United States Naval Serviceman Charles Jackson French seconds after delivering a heavy blow to his underwater foe. Borrowing from the myth of Poseidon, Jabari depicts French with a blue triton in his left hand, garbed in folds of fabric that float above him, equipping the sailor with wings worthy of Nike of Samothrace. French, also known as the “Human Tugboat,” became nationally recognized during World War II for pulling a lifeboat of fifteen survivors of a shipwreck to safety in shark-infested waters in the Pacific. Regardless of this superhuman feat of strength and determination, French lived the remainder of his life after the war traumatized by his upbringing in a Jim Crow South and contemporary institutionalized racist society.
Another drawing, Hushayrurrureeetut Rurohsushsush (Harriet Ross), features Harriet Tubman’s mother sitting stoically on a bull, her eyes confidently confronting the viewer in a determined gaze. While the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is well-known, her mother’s biography also includes undertakings of facing injustice and liberating African Americans. A fiercely devoted mother, she fought the legal system and her enslaver for her family’s liberation. One legend recounts her riding a bull to protect one of her sons from being sold into slavery.
In Jabari’s drawing, Ross clenches a golden reign in her left hand while a blue staff poached from a sci-fi flick rests on her right shoulder, the composition tessellated with geometric scraps of quilted paper. These blank forms perforating the image suggest a simplified subject outline, similar to guides that map out constellations like Orion and Aries. Although no photographs or likenesses exist of Ross, Jabari sources inspiration from the Statue of Liberty—a gift celebrating freedom and democracy from the French delivered nearly twenty years after the Thirteenth Amendment. He fashions her visage in the likeness of a mythological Hellenistic goddess, forever documented in the fabric of the heavens.
Neatly assembled, rough shingles of treated wood on simple wood frames shelter the drawings in the form of “shotgun” house roofs. The tent shape over the drawings alludes to both the canopy of heavens that Jabari places his pictures under and a more personal recollection of childhood visits to family in rural East Texas and contemporary dwellings in Houston’s Historic Third Ward neighborhood. Both the roofs and a corner installation Shotgun House Observatory (2021) further support the artist’s efforts to contribute new entries to the thousands-year-old canon of constellations mapped out in the night sky.
While Jabari’s older work and art created in Otabenga Jones & Associates sought to document Black achievements in the form of popular print culture and archival remixes, these new paintings and installation supersede beyond the ephemera of paper and events to record Black legends in the heavens. Moreover, with these new constellations, historical heroes are memorialized in a means protected from legal erasure, seen in recent contemporary efforts to ban critical race theory and the inclusion of nonwhite historical facts in public education.
Dawolu Jabari: Lessons from Above: Constellation Quilts is scheduled to remain on view through December 18, 2021, at Galveston Artist Residency, 2521 Mechanic Street in Galveston, Texas.