At the Syntax of Language, Place, Family and History

On “Radcliffe Bailey: Recent Works”

Radcliffe Bailey Windward Coast – West Coast Slave Trade, 2009-2011; piano keys, plaster bust and glitter, dimensions vary–approximately 27 square feet © Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


Windward Coast

It was after staring at Windward Coast (2009) by the artist Radcliffe Bailey, exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, that the woman beside me spoke. Until that moment, she had only murmured.

Her gray head had only shook. No, no, no.

The piece operates and sustains on multiple levels: it recalls the literal landscapes of major earthquakes and floods, the symbolic landscape of the unseen bodies that littered the journey, serving as discarded refuse, during the Middle Passage, and the emotional landscapes that reside in the viewer’s mind as the self navigates Bailey’s work.

If the woman saw any of this, I could not tell. She spoke in a voice that was quiet enough to be mistaken as a confessional and yet the tone offered no space for parochial rebuke. “Those pianos,” she said to no one and everyone. “Those poor, poor, poor pianos.”

At the heart of New Orleans exists an uncomfortable conversation centering on tourism and the bodies belonging to the African diaspora that live in this city. Then there are the tourists who have come to this city, post-Hurricane Katrina. In their camera, a shotgun house, in disrepair, still bearing the spray-painted crosshatch in the lower 9th ward neighborhood, all gesture towards the black body that once lived there.

Like Bailey’s work, drawn lines bleeding lie at the fulcrum of New Orleans: water becomes land becomes water and social boundary lines, are forever being defined, challenged, and then crossed.


Objects litter the landscape: a frayed rope, train tracks, white cotton and white coral. The title owes itself to the last known slave ship that journeyed to the Mobile Bay in the U.S in 1859. The pieces of tracks and the ship itself signify both the transportation of enslaved people and the passage of those people to freedom via the “Underground Railroad.” Ultimately, though, the motion is ambiguous. The objects either move forwards, backwards, or suspend-in-transit.

RB14.002 Clotilde HR

Radcliffe Bailey Clotilde, 2014; black sand, wood, and coral 76 1/4 x 76 1/4 inches 80 1/16 x 80 3/16 x 4 inches framed ©Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


Black Night Falling

This movement motif arrives to a different conclusion in Black Night Falling. Here, the canvas is a black tarp. A large white rock, taken from the artist’s home, occupies the central view. Painted on the canvas are arrows as well as the artist’s footprints (Bailey created the footprints by dancing to the music of Stevie Wonder.) The space becomes a map and the footprints becomes both a runagate and a ring shout, every place spoken, like Haiti or New Orleans or Jamaica, is both a curse and a prayer held between the mouth in rapture.

RB14.021 Black Night Falling HR

Radcliffe Bailey, Black Night Falling, 2014; mixed media, approximate dimensions: 168 x 240 x 14 inches ©Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


On Your Way Up

Both On Your Way Up (2013) and Congo (2013) feel like dreamscapes and artifacts of a past ritual. On Your Way Up presents the embalmed carcass of a crocodile, emerging from the thick tarp serving as black swamp; bears the initials of the artist’s grandparents and their birthdates and death date denoting the sense of personal history. Stitched, bowed arrows also accompany the piece, this time echoing the curves of the reptilian body mounted in suspended motion like a crucifix. The positioning of it all feels ceremonial.

On Your Way Up

Radcliffe Bailey On Your Way Up, 2013; tarp, crocodile, and steel 120 x 106 x 10 inches 
©Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.



The dreamscape is both nightmare and memoriam: the ceremony recalls the brutal colonizer King Leopold, who occupied Congo, extracting its rubber properties through the violent exploitation of its native people via beatings, starvation, and death.


Radcliffe Bailey, Congo, 2013; tarp, steel, wire, and wooden arms, 111 x 101 x 8 1/2 inches 
©Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


If Bells Could Talk

Overhead, two soundtracks serve as accompaniment. There is the sound of the artist placing the piano keys on the floor for Windward Coast. It is thin music, suggestive of the sounds heard inside the seashell. Trumpeter and composer Hannibal Lokumbe plays music inspired by If Bells Could Talk, the sound dots the air with a bright, burst of notes in search of a melody.

If Bells Could Talk

Radcliffe Bailey If Bells Could Talk, 2015 wood, trumpets, trombones 
©Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

When I left, the first time, I was still thinking about the woman who mourned those pianos the way I mourn the death of black and brown bodies, marooned communities, and interrupted lives and families. Had I heard her right? Had she meant bodies and not pianos?

She was gone. Perhaps, that was for the best. What could I say to her? What would she say to me?

The Coded Body

Part of The Offing's National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month spotlight