The Tragic Beauty of Kevin Cole: Cole’s new MOCA GA exhibit wonders, Where do we go from here?
By D. Amari Jackson
Although Kevin Cole is not running for office, the renowned artist has been well known to publicly promote the power of the ballot box. So much so that his new exhibition, Where do we go from here?, highlights Cole’s ongoing exploration into the contested electoral themes of gerrymandering and voting rights. Replete with new works, the exhibition runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) from August 20 to October 15 with an opening reception on August 19th.
For Cole, voting runs in his blood the way it ran from the Black bodies that came before him. As an Arkansas youth indifferent to the ballot box, his 91-year-old grandfather painted a picture that Cole would never forget.
“When I turned eighteen years old, my grandfather told me about a tree on his property where African-American men had been lynched by their neckties on their way to vote,” recounts Cole, from his exhibit statement. “The experience left a profound impression. I am personally tethered to this inescapable memory.”
This profound experience would play a significant role in inspiring Cole’s extraordinary four-decade career in art. Known for his ironic yet colorful integration of beauty and tragedy within the same space—particularly his production of vibrant, curvilinear neckties to symbolize nooses—Cole’s art has been featured in close to 500 exhibitions across the globe and graces over 4,000 public, private, and corporate collections. He is the recipient of dozens of art awards, teaching awards, grants, and fellowships, including the 2020 Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities from the State of Georgia and a 2018 induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Along with his more than 45 public artworks, among them the Coca-Cola Centennial Olympic Mural for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Cole’s art graces such prestigious collections as the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian, the Georgia Museum, the High Museum of Art, the William Jefferson Clinton Library, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the David C. Driskell Center University of Maryland at College Park. A member of the legendary artist collective, AfriCOBRA, since 2003, Cole has taught and lectured at numerous institutions around the country.
But for all his national acclaim, Cole has devoted a substantial part of his career to ensuring that no one will ever forget the tragic and antidemocratic challenges that inspired both his stunning art and his grandfather’s early intervention.
“Being from Arkansas, I’m familiar with the poll tax,” says Cole, whose Ballot Box series is also incorporated into the MOCA exhibit. “They would ask Black folks a lot of stupid questions like, ‘How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?’ or ‘How many black-eyed peas [are] in the bag?’ Prompted by the electorally-based writings of the late Dr. Ron Walters, Cole further researched the voting process and got friends to ask their parents and grandparents about their voting experiences.
“Man, I got a lot of crazy answers,” acknowledges Cole, who resides in the Atlanta area. “The sad thing is, with a lot of the people, they are still afraid.” He relays the story of a potential Black voter in Floyd County, GA who was once asked by an election official, “How many bullets in the box?” Then, continues Cole, the official took the “box of bullets, poured them on his table, and asked if he had three house Negros and four field Negros—but he obviously didn’t say the word ‘Negros’—how many bullets would it take to kill all seven of them?”
“Kevin is a very creative person who has dedicated his life to the art, and I think that social justice is in the forefront of everything he does as it relates to voting,” says Garbo Hearne, of Hearne Fine Art in Little Rock, Arkansas. Hearne’s gallery has represented Cole’s work since 2001. “I think this upcoming exhibit is gonna push that envelope a little further regarding the poll tax and how African Americans are treated,” offers Hearne, noting that “it’s amazing to me how many people are not aware of what sacrifices were made by our ancestors so that we could vote. Kevin keeps this in the forefront of his artwork.”
Gerrymandering—the practice of manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one party—will also play a large role in the MOCA exhibit. “I picked out seven of the southern states which I call the “Dirty South” and cut those shapes out of aluminum, and I got dirt from those states,” explains Cole. “And where you see the dirt is where gerrymandering takes place.”
As a student with a speech impediment, growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in the 1960s, Cole was no stranger to having dirt thrown his way. “My mom would tell me to make her a picture when I came home and told her how my classmates made fun of me speaking,” Cole once told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “She told me I was special [because] I could speak with my talent.”
His talent was not limited to art as Cole excelled in sports and academics in high school along with his regular art classes. Upon receiving scholarship offers in all of these areas, Cole, with the encouragement of his art teacher, pursued art at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Cole notes that there were several art educators at the school “who changed my life” and “showed me that I could be an artist.” With such encouragement, he would go on to receive an M.A. in Art Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana and an M.F.A. from Northern Illinois University where he excelled as a Rhoden Smith Scholar. Cole is one of the few artists to get two master’s degrees in two years.
Among others, Cole credits Sam Gilliam as a major artistic influence and Radcliffe Bailey’s work as an ongoing inspiration. “If you look at my approach, I would say it’s similar to artists like Norman Lewis and Sam Gilliam,” acknowledges Cole, pointing out how Lewis “dealt with social issues, but they were more abstract. I had a good relationship with Sam Gilliam as well,” he says of the recently deceased abstractionist.
“People say ‘abstract,’ but the process is real,” contends Cole. “My work is based on situations. For instance, the reason I use wood is because African Americans were lynched by their neckties on a tree.” Another example, he explains, is how “I started working with aluminum after September 11th because I was supposed to be in New York that day and a friend of mine took a picture of a little boy holding a piece of tar paper and aluminum. And then you think about the planes, they were made out of metal. So every medium I use has to do with some type of situation.”
Cole is also known to apply positive titles to works that speak to tragic or inequitable situations. “His titles are very positive and forward thinking,” affirms Hearne, characterizing Cole’s method of “taking that negative and positive together” as “history making, while also giving people the power to think outside the box. So I think he’s an artist whose found his signature approach,” continues Hearne, adding that “you don’t have to really look at his name to know who it is.”
Cole’s signature approach will be on full display at the MOCA exhibit, Kevin Cole: Where do we go from here?, starting with the Opening Reception on August 19th at 7pm. Major funding for the two-month exhibition is being provided by the Charles Loridans Foundation, the Antinori Foundation, and the AEC Trust, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The exhibit will further encapsulate the lengthy and successful career of a talented artist well-versed in the integration of art and social justice, of tragedy and beauty. When asked if African-American artists should have an inherent artistic responsibility to their culture, fittingly, Cole’s ultimate answer—like his colorful, provocative work—is abstract, yet real.
“I think, automatically, if you’re a Black artist, you can’t forget that,” chuckles Cole, reiterating “that’s just automatic.”
“But in the real world, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue,” continues Cole. “And they’re gonna be red, yellow, and blue all over the world.”
“So it’s how you use that red, yellow, and blue.”
AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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