‘A Distant Holla’ at Portland Museum of Art plumbs richness of African-American life
Maine artist Daniel Minter’s deeply spiritual piece tells his personal story as well as an overarching narrative of the black experience in America
More than he is a painter or a sculptor, Daniel Minter is a storyteller, and at no time has he told his story more clearly, forcefully and thoughtfully than in his installation, “A Distant Holla,” that is part of the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial.
The installation was inspired by a dream Minter experienced in the 1980s, when he lived in Atlanta. The artist, who now lives in Portland, revisits the dream in “A Distant Holla,” a deeply spiritual piece of art that tells Minter’s personal story as well as an overarching narrative of the black experience in America. It’s the second time he’s shown an iteration of this piece in Maine. He introduced it in spring 2016 at the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, in a community exhibition with other artists of color from Maine. He has since shown a version of it in New Orleans, as well.
It’s become the most talked-about piece in the biennial, which is on view through June 3. “A Distant Holla” dominates the gallery, filling a wall and demanding attention. To understand the piece – to unearth its details and discover its layers – one must spend time reading it, almost like a book. It’s psychologically heavy and takes time to process.
“You’re not supposed to have a favorite in a group show. Like parents, you are not allowed to have a favorite child,” said biennial curator Nat May. “I don’t want to say that Daniel’s is my favorite piece in the biennial, but I am so pleased it is centered in the show, and it warrants being at the center of the conversation of what the show is all about.”
The show is about diversity, inclusion and the zeitgeist of America circa 2018, which translates into tension, turmoil and tumult for those on the losing side of oppression. Minter, who is African-American, makes art that is spiritual and symbolic, reflective of his community in Maine and the echoes of his personal and wider cultural past.
Born in Georgia, Minter lived in Chicago, Seattle and Brooklyn before moving to Maine in 2003. He was the visionary behind the Portland Freedom Trail, teaches at Maine College of Art and is active in the Ashley Bryan Center and the Illustration Institute. He’s illustrated nearly a dozen children’s books and twice created Kwanzaa stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.
But more than any or all of those things, “A Distant Holla” represents what Minter is about as an artist and a human being. The installation is dense with cultural iconography that represents the complex heritage of the American South of his youth, which he connects to broader rituals and traditions within the African diaspora.
“The whole idea of the piece comes from myself trying to tell a story that goes back, back, back into time, and that also goes forward into the future,” Minter said. “It comes from a dream that I have been trying to put into images, and every image I have here has some aspect of the dream in it. It’s about traveling through materials, traveling through the earth, traveling through dirt, traveling through stone.”