A generation ago, in a classic essay, Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin noted that African Americans living in the North traveling below the Mason Dixon Line sometimes think of the South as the Old Country. Voyagers in a land they have never seen, they are in a position similar to that of the son of an Italian emigrant finding himself in Italy, near where his father was born; strangers in a landscape which they, nevertheless, cannot fail to recognize. Since Baldwin wrote his famous essay, boundaries between the North and South, past and present, urban and rural, conscious and unconscious have blurred. But the theme of invisibility, presented powerfully in Baldwin's writing, remains central in African American culture, and is a defining dimension of Lewis Watts' photographs.
Lewis Watts' photographs document his search for evidence of the presence of African American people in the cultural landscape of the South. Although people of African heritage, escaping from a Spanish slave ship, first settled in North America almost a century before the English arrived, their intimate relationships to place have remained largely unseen. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Watts left at an early age, grew up in Seattle and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. The photographs selected here from a large body of his work, represent over a decade of sifting through images that define, describe, and mark relationships between African American people and the places they inhabit in the region of his birth.
Webster's dictionary defines evidence as, a) an outward sign, INDICATION; b) something that furnishes proof, TESTIMONY; specifically something legally submitted to a tribunal to ascertain the truth of the matter. The photographer's eye trained to notice elegant architectural detail, classical composition, social fact is drawn to modest situations, events, arrangements, or objects which furnish proof of relationships of caring, reverence, devotion, humility, gratitude, humor, confidence. Not only are these images foreign to highbrow culture, but they invite us to contemplate circumstances, events, deeds, acts, accomplishments which lie beyond the testimony powerfully presented on print.
Two women, the Clark Sisters, in their Sunday best, standing in the door way of an unfinished cinder block church, without windows, floor or roof remind us that religious devotion is a matter of faith and imagination. Mannequins in the studio yard of a folk artist, Missionary Mary Proctor, recall an unwritten history of lawn jockeys, often thought of as symbols of racism and servitude, but also used by abolitionists pointing to safe harbor for slaves on the underground railroad. A sacred alter with plaster figurines, decorated bottles, semitransparent cloth, and the painting of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau recalls the complex relationship between Catholic and African religions which still hold sway in regions of the South and Caribbean. Crutches and artificial limbs, leaning like ancient African symbols, against a wall of memory make one wonder who used them, and how they were wounded -- in accidents? on the battlefield? victims of strange and hideous diseases? Have they, like Lazaruth, picked up their crutches and walked? Worshippers holding hands in front of burnt remains of the Rising Star Baptist Church in Greensboro, Alabama show that the terror of the Klan is very much a part of American life. They remind us as well, that the church is not a building, it is the faith in the holy spirit which joins people in communion.
Carl Anthony (c)1997