The time is more than ripe to see Mark Steven Greenfield’s "Black Madonna," a new suite of paintings and drawings that meditate on the fraught, violent history of Africans brought to America against their will. Subjected to numerous delays, including the most recent one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, "Black Madonna" opened this month amid historic protests against police brutality toward Black people and unprecedented political turmoil primarily generated by this country's resurgent and persistent case of white supremacy.
Most of the works in the show center on Greenfield’s consideration of the Byzantine Black Madonna icon, whose true origins are shrouded in the mists of time. Various theories have held that images of the Madonna were accidentally blackened by church smoke, or that they were purposely colorized to appeal to colonized peoples of color. Over time, the image came to be associated with miracles and new beginnings.
Greenfield chooses to focus on the Black Madonna as a site of deep mystery and contemplation, and ultimately a call to inner peace. Each Madonna and child painting is gorgeously rendered in a traditional tondo format, surrounded by gold leaf. Both mother and child have distinctly Black, not European, facial features, and sometimes Greenfield adds humorous accents, such as sunglasses on the child or a marijuana leaf in his hand. These frontal images are always warm and comforting, but they are challenged by furtive action scenes in the background, which depict fantasy acts of revenge against white supremacists — a hooded Klansman is burned at the stake, Nazis are taken out in an explosion while the child holds a stick of dynamite, an alt-right headquarters goes up in smoke. There’s even a scene where UFOs show up to vanquish a neo-Nazi.
Click left and right to see a few of Greenfield's works:
It is much easier to review these images as jpegs, from the comfort of home and via the sterile environment of my computer. I am more capable now of seeing them as holistic images that hold complicated visions — visions of Black perseverance and Black love in the face of unspeakable evil, visions of compassion even toward your worst enemy, visions of a future filled with more Black joy as white supremacy finally recedes into the background. It was difficult to get there in the gallery, which I visited on September 23, five days after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, five days after Mitch McConnell’s instant decision to ignore Ginsburg’s final wish and fill her seat with a Republican pick, and only hours before the announcement of a verdict in the Breonna Taylor court case. Faced with these images during a particularly explosive week, I could only focus with great thirst on the scenes of revenge, unable to aspire to the peace embodied in the Madonnas.
Other works in the show continue to challenge the viewer with competing visions of sorrow and hope, tragedy and inspiration. Several reverential portraits tell the stories of seminal figures in global Black history: Saint Moses the Black, an Ethiopian government servant who died a martyr for peace after circumstances forced him to live a violent life; Toussaint L’Overture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, considered the only successful slave revolt in history; Susan Mabry, a Virginia slave who was known for her ability to pick up to 500 pounds of cotton in a day. These and other stories, told in detail on accompanying captions, are absolutely heartbreaking, but Greenfield honors each of them by depicting them with great dignity, often at the heights of their achievements: the saintly Black Moses carries a cross and incense burners common to the Coptic Christian faith of his native Ethiopia; L’Overture, revered as the “father of Haiti,” is seen in resplendent military regalia; a crown hovers above Mabry’s head while she toils in the fields.
The most harrowing works of all are two abstract drawings that reference some of the most shameful moments in American history. “Zong” (2019) is named after the slave ship that gained notoriety after the crew threw more than 130 slaves overboard when they realized they didn’t have enough food and water for all of them. On a vast plain of hand-drawn abstract symbols, which come to represent the dark waters of the Atlantic, numerous Black bodies are seen in freefall, hurtling towards oblivion. “Crop Circle” (2016) evokes an expansive field of cotton, ripe for the picking, with one unusual feature: in the upper left, a large swath of the field has been cleared. It was explained to me that slaves were sometimes whipped to the point of bloodshed for not picking cotton fast enough, and if batches of cotton became stained with this blood, they had to be destroyed.
It perhaps goes to the root of Greenfield’s current artistic practice, to see these brutal and inhumane events invoked via mark-making that is exquisitely beautiful and even emanates calm and tranquility. Via email, the artist told me that he has been practicing a form of meditation for nearly 45 years and that the symbolic marks, done in a meditative freehand, are the fruit of a long struggle to develop a visual form of mantra —a sound or vibration that enables access to the unconscious. Greenfield’s mantras form the entirety of the four large drawings in the show, including “Zong” and “Crop Circle.” They also weave through all the paintings in the form of decorative circular motifs. The artist offers this: “In the course of the meditation, you may reach an indescribable place of love and peace.”
The imagery in “Black Madonna” can be difficult to deal with during this time of horrific uncertainty when right-wing ideology runs rampant and threatens to reverse decades of civil rights progress. It is for this reason, however, that the show is compellingly necessary: it urges us to look unflinchingly at the realities of global injustice and the original sin of anti-Black racism, even as it encourages us to reflect more deeply on the concepts of peace and compassion as we continue to struggle toward a more just world.
Mark Steven Greenfield: Black Madonna is on view at William Turner Gallery through November 28.
Top Image: Zong (2019), ink and acrylic on Dura-Lar, 36 x 70 inches | Courtesy of Mark Steven Greenfield