AVAM’s new exhibition spotlights the defiant tenacity in the human desire to connect
Herman Wallace’s dream house is a two-story, wooden A-frame wonder. It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a hobby room because he likes to build things, a wraparound porch, and a swimming pool in the backyard. He thinks the kitchen pantry should be right off the two-car garage so that it’s easier to unload groceries. He imagines a garden in the front so that the first thing visitors see are gladiolas, carnations, and tulips. He thinks there should be a small guesthouse in the back with a front made entirely of glass windows.
Wallace isn’t an architect, but like any designer he has well-reasoned ideas for his decisions. The guesthouse’s glass façade is in case any visitors might be claustrophobic. The A-frame style is because it reminds him of the homes of his native Louisiana. And the house should be made of wood so that it can be set fire to in case of attack. There’s a false door on the first floor that leads to an underground stone bunker filled with items like a bullet proof vest, oxygen tanks, a gasmask, a radio, rations, a first-aid kit—basically everything needed to survive an assault.
You see, Wallace dreamed up this house while living in a six-by-nine foot solitary confinement cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. This prison is located on what used to be a slave plantation, and it is more commonly known by the name of the West African country from which most of its slaves were taken: Angola. Wallace, Robert King, and Albert Woodfox were sentenced to Angola in 1971 for armed robbery. They all joined the Black Panther party in jail. In 1972 Wallace and Woodfox were falsely convicted of the murder of a prison guard and transferred to solitary confinement, where Wallace stayed for the next 41 years. He was released from prison on October 1, 2013, at the age of 73 and suffering from advanced liver cancer. He passed away three days later.
A replica of Wallace’s cell, a scale model of his dream home, and an animated walk through of it is included in one of the galleries at the American Visionary Art Museum as part of its new, year-long exhibition. Titled The Big Hope Show, it serves as AVAM’s 20th anniversary exhibition. It’s also the most politically agitated and at times subversive show in the museum’s history, coming six months after unrest roiled Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. The artists that exhibition curator and AVAM founding director Rebecca Hoffberger assembled for Hope understand that its very title asks a great deal of visitors during a time in which people of color are continually the targets of police brutality and endure the long social and economic violence of white supremacy, when more than 1,000 mass shootings have taken place in America since Sandy Hook in 2012, and when this nation of immigrants tries to close its borders to people out of xenophobic fears. Hope understands that challenge, and the 27 included artists aren’t afraid to confront reactionary, cynical fears head on and push through to something more defiant, persevering, and, dare say, hopeful.
Take, for example, the installation of work by self-taught artist Craig Norton and Candy Cummings in one of the exhibition’s hallway galleries. Norton’s “Don’t’ Worry About Us Indians We All Own Casinos and are All Stink-in Rich” mixed-media-on-wood painting tackles derogatory representations of Native Americans: it features two women and a man at a craps table, each woman holding a glass of wine and the man tossing die. Each of their faces appears to be a cut out photo of an “Indian”—the women with feathers in their braided hair, the man wouldn’t look out of place on the side of an NFL helmet—but the exaggerated way Norton renders them pokes more fun at the juxtaposition. Cummings makes mixed-media assemblages from ordinary ephemera: toys, beads, Tarot Cards, and empty Caphosol ampules, that mouthwash given to people receiving chemotherapy to prevent painful oral ulcerations. Last year Cummings passed away from the stage-III lung cancer that doctors predicted was going to take her years earlier. Her “Superstar” uses intravenous tubes and those empty ampules to create a jubilant, flower-like bundle, something growing weed-like out of such aggressive medical treatment.
Life’s defiant urge to endure is mirrored in Noah Scialom’s photo array of street scenes taken during the Baltimore uprising in April. Young men dance in the street. Neighborhood residents sit on their rowhomes’ front stoops. An African-American child holds a “No Justice No Peace Sign” with a young white child standing right next to him. Some of the city’s young dirt-bike riders cruise down the street with their front wheels pointed toward the sky. Above the installation wall text reads, MAY HOPE GRACE OUR CITY. Scialom’s photos capture Baltimore’s citizens answering that call.
Such moments of grace pepper the show. Nancy Josephson’s stunning mixed-media sculpture “Erzulie Kouvez”—the title is a portmanteau of a Haitian vodou spirit (“Erzulie”) and the creole word for incubator (“kouvez”)—features a winged woman made of beads holding a pair of birds in her hands, one white and one black. Her hoop-like skirt becomes a birdcage beneath her, where a small menagerie of beaded birds perch. She’s a sanctuary for these fragile creatures.
Bobby Adams’ photos document how people created safe harbors for themselves. Adams, a Baltimore pirate radio DJ in the 1960s, became the unofficial set photographer during filmmaker John Waters’ shoots, and Hope includes roughly 40 years of candid snapshots of the misfits, malcontents, outsiders, artists, and actors that form the extended family of Waters’ cinematic universe. Many of them became the recipients of Adams’ thoughtful, intricate, and witty handmade Christmas cards, examples of which are also included in the show.
Hope is the first time Adams’ creative work has ever been exhibited in public, and the at-times intensely personal aspect of it is what connects it to the more recognizably political work of Herman Wallace’s home. Included in the show is Adams’ shrine to his departed pet poodle Odie, although “shrine” doesn’t quite convey its hoarder-like obsession. It’s a glass cabinet that appears to be filled with every porcelain poodle figurine that might’ve found its way to a second-hand store in the greater Baltimore area. It’s comical at first, but interspersed among the figurines are photos, presumably of Odie, and on the cabinet’s bottom shelf are Odie’s old dog tags. It’s a private columbarium, a place where somebody remembers what somebody else’s life meant to them, and this seemingly ridiciulous collection of figurines becomes a profoundly moving, nearly sacred object.
That human need to connect haunts the background of the entire The Big Hope Show, suggesting that what we mean when we use the word “hope”—an expectation of something desired, a feeling of trust or confidence—is powered by the loneliness that resides at consciousness’ core. Consider Herman Wallace’s dream home, whose very existence is born from the relationship forged by two people. In 2001 Jackie Sumell, at the time a multi-disciplinary artist in graduate school, learned about the Angola 3 from the then recently released Robert King, who encouraged her to write to his comrades still inside. In 2003 Sumell asked Wallace to describe his dream home, kick starting a multi-year collaboration called The House That Herman Built, a documentary movie, and variations on the traveling installation displayed here.
You can step inside the replica of the six-by-nine foot solitary cell in the gallery, which is similar to the one in which Wallace was held. If you raise your arms to the side you can almost touch each wall. He lived in such close quarters for 41 years. The small window on one wall appears to be the only source of regular sunlight. Spending but a few minutes in this space, the power of Wallace’s imagination to dream up an idealized home feels superhuman. He had to know he was never going to see it, much less live in it. Nevertheless, life—and the hope that powers it—guided his way.