Living Left of Center
Kelli Morgan, PhD
What does it mean to be left of center?
The question almost begs for an innumerable amount of convoluted answers. If taken literally, one can offer a brief response that describes the condition of being physically on the left side of an essential person, place, or thing. This seems simple enough. However, deeper contemplation of the query itself considered alongside the metaphorical nature of its principal terms—left and center—reveals what can only be viewed as the loaded nature of the question.
For example, there are numerous definitions of the term left, each having its own cultural connotation, such as being “out in left field” or in a position far from the mainstream, having radical political views, and being illogical. Left also refers to the act of leaving or abandonment, as well as the state of what remains after something or someone has gone, disappeared, or ceased to exist. Interestingly, many of these imply a state of being incorrect, or somehow not quite right.
Contrarily, the term center denotes a state of being pivotal or important in relationship to an indicated person, place, or phenomenon. It also refers to a source from which something originates, including the fundamental biases of fictional histories, subjective ontologies, and oppressive epistemologies often utilized to subordinate various groups. Accordingly, Samuel Levi Jones’s work emerges from the often one-sided texts that comprise the epistemological center of the social institutions that structure American society. Specifically, he deconstructs encyclopedias, judicial annuals, medical texts, and football equipment to examine injustice and the way it pervades American education, healthcare, criminal justice, and sports entertainment.
To answer such a loaded question, Jones strips various reference books down to their literal spines. This intricate physical deconstruction then exposes the textual and material sinews of what we have come to know as white supremacist patriarchy. However, Jones does not simply destroy racist textbooks; rather, he applies the textual dissection necessary for artistic rejuvenation, and the beautiful abstract paintings that emerge from his reassembly offer a far more honest look at the American experience.
Born and raised in Marion, Indiana, Jones is the youngest of four. Interestingly, he is also the great nephew (by marriage) of Abraham S. Smith, one of the two men who befell the senseless and violent fanaticism of Marion’s infamous 1930 public lynching. After a difficult childhood, Jones played football at Taylor University where he received a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies. In 2006, he enrolled at the Herron School of Art where he studied photography as an investigative approach to material and broader issues of discrimination and erasure. Upon pursuing his MFA at Mills College in 2010, Jones’s graduate training led him to his current practice.
In 2011, his longtime friend Paula Katz brought Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits to his attention. The series was Richter’s photorealistic presentation of the most important cultural figures of the modern era, which was exhibited in the German pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Sourced from portrait photographs included with the contemporaneous encyclopedia entries on each individual, all of Richter’s subjects were European and Euro-American men. Later that year, another friend gifted Jones a 1972 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and that was the moment where Jones’s interests in photographic and textual media converged.
He examined the encyclopedias with a critical eye, considering questions of power and representation, or the lack thereof. As he reviewed each of the 736 encyclopedic photographs of notable figures, the reality that only 13 belonged to African Americans was disturbing, although not completely surprising. Having faced discrimination throughout his life, Jones’s examination of the texts served as yet another confirmation of the centrality of whiteness and maleness in American culture. From there, he pulped the encyclopedia pages, created new paper, and printed 48 portraits of his own.
At a distance, the prints in 48 Portraits (Underexposed) appear to be completely black. Thus, Jones’s technique of underexposure necessitates a type of visual confrontation, as each figure’s face emerges only when the viewer is close to the work. Accordingly, 48 Portraits (Underexposed) is a critical reprise of Richter’s series in which Jones presents figures like Bessie Smith, W.E.B. Du Bois, Edmonia Lewis, Langston Hughes, and Ida B. Wells—to name only a few—whose lives significantly impacted or completely altered Western culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, despite this worth, Black scholars and artists like Jones have had to continuously assert their legacies into mainstream American history.
As much as one can discuss Jones as an important contemporary abstractionist, a myopic focus on the formal aspects of his paintings is to miss the larger point: the role of his work in furthering the longer philosophical tradition of realizing the tangibility of Black humanity that is unique to African American cultural production. Much like Du Bois, who in 1900 utilized photography to illuminate the essence and material realities of the Black middle class in Georgia, and Ida B. Wells who dedicated her life to exposing the political and economic truths about American lynching, 48 Portraits (Underexposed) illuminates the ways in which African American people themselves, and not just their contributions to American society, continue to be “underexposed” or deliberately omitted from the bodies of knowledge that constitute American culture.
Like most of the historical figures in the series, Jones deliberately calls attention to the ways in which people of color are rendered invisible in the United States. More importantly, his work also deconstructs how and why erasure occurs in the first place. Sarcasm for instance, which is also constructed from used encyclopedias, refers to the way white Americans often use sarcasm as a means in social settings to mitigate the discomfort they feel when a person of color discusses the harrowing realities of racism and racial trauma. Every person of color has experienced this scenario in some form or another: while recounting a particular racist experience or sharing the history of racial trauma, a white friend or colleague responds with denials (“That wasn’t really racist; maybe that person was just having a bad day” or “The guy should have followed the officer’s orders”) or dismissals (“That was so long ago. You should really let it go” or the now infamous, “But don’t all lives matter?”).
The similarities between the book covers in Sarcasm work in conjunction with their repetitive placement to elucidate that, even when we are made cognizant of the cyclical nature of racist and sexist phenomena directly from people who experience it, there is still a palpable hesitation to acknowledge its effects. This lack of recognition, be it conscious or unconscious, denies the sufferer’s reality, which can be even more damaging because it implies that the person of color is either aloof or completely delusional about very real occurrences of physical and psychological trauma caused by acts of racial subordination and anti-Black violence. Such cultural phenomena resonate strongly with Jones. Hence, in 2015 he rendered the prodigious Talk to Me to shed light on the sheer enormity of police brutality against Blacks in the United States, and the frank refusal among broader groups of Americans to acknowledge its racial underpinnings.
The year 2015 was charged with social tension after the deaths of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and the socio-political upheavals in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, which brought the Black Lives Matter movement fully into mainstream media. When speaking about Talk to Me, Jones stated:
“I wanted something monumental. And I acquired [the law books] for the first time to make my initial pieces from my reactions to police brutality. I wanted something large and loud. There was a lot of emotion that went along with what was happening at that time and I wanted the work to fit that.”
If nothing else, police brutality is indeed “large and loud” for people of color in the United States. For centuries, African Americans have endured innumerable transgressions enacted by law enforcement. For example, lynching was an extremely violent practice employed between 1880 and 1960 to prevent African American economic and social progress. Often thought to be an extralegal practice, early investigations by Ida B. Wells, Walter White, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Tuskegee Institute elucidated the fact that local law officials often aided mob violence in some fashion.
By the 1970s, racial profiling became an exclusionary political tactic used by various government agencies against African American communities, and Muslim and Latinx communities have been increasingly plagued by the practice post-9/11. More recent exposure of police interaction with men and women of color, enabled by the use of smart phones and social media, have illuminated just how oppressive and prevalent the practice remains. To provide artistic commentary on this history and its pervasiveness in 2015, Talk to Me was created out of 796 law books. Arranged as a group of 33 panels, the covers oscillate from tawny yellows to deeps browns as representations of the various communities of color affected both physically and emotionally by law officials’ misconduct. More pointedly, Talk to Me is a scathing critique of the reams of legislation that confounds police brutality and the American judicial system that condones it.
In 2016, Jones asserted a little sarcasm of his own in the title of Blue Skies Matter. Its satirical tone discredits the way Americans often evoke narratives of diversity to divert attention away from the painful realities of anti-Black racism. Considering the way in which slogans such as “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” work to erase both the political and physical ramifications of police brutality towards people of color, Jones asks that we recognize and respect the fact that Black Lives Matter regardless of their relationship to other human lives. Conversely, Joshua is more sobering. Created in homage to 25-year-old Joshua Beal, a young father from Indianapolis who was shot and killed in Chicago by an off-duty police officer, Joshua is only one of two paintings in the exhibition that contains text. Here, covers from books that delineate criminal law for the state of Illinois are strategically arranged to compose the following statement: “End Assault and Homicide Criminal Officers and Public Employees.” Leaving no ambiguity, Jones reorganizes terms in each book’s title to call for the end to injustice carried out by problematic law officials. Furthermore, the tattered covers—their frayed ends, torn skins, and vivid red hues—signify the too-often fatal realties of a biased legal system.
As much as Jones considers contemporary forms of racial injustice, earlier works like Columns and Tar Baby refer to the past and to the historical foundations of white supremacy in America. A meditation on plantation architecture, Columns is an assemblage of book spines that exposes how the structural landmarks of slavery are also found in the material components of American textbooks. Using repetition as a design element, Jones fashions a lengthy piece to denote the cyclical nature of racial subordination, from its seventeenth-century founding in human bondage to its eventual evolution into a racial caste system that remains alive and well. Although the spines’ leather-bound exteriors appear significantly decayed, conveying a sense of elapsed time, Jones reveals that the spinal interiors have remained pillared, white, and considerably intact. This suggests that while the plantation mansion is no longer the face of white supremacy in the United States, its racist foundations within American society remain everlasting. Accordingly, Tar Baby references the use of the term in the south as a pejorative, and the ways in which tarring and feathering was utilized throughout the country as a form of public torture and humiliation from the Colonial period until the early twentieth century.
Later works like Toxicity refer to the various methods of Western medical experimentation on African Americans. A well-established practice for white physicians during slavery, dangerous medical research was enacted upon African Americans throughout the twentieth century as well. Though the Tuskegee Experiment is the most infamous case of such heinous medical malpractice, the 1928 Human Radiation Experiment has a particular resonance with Jones because it occurred on young African American children in Lyles Station, Indiana, which is just two hours south of his Indianapolis home. Composed of covers from various medical texts, Toxicity is another representation of how Jones employs his practice to unpack the connections between tragic American histories and our current realities.
We see this most poignantly in works like Complex Occupation, which takes its title from Erykah Badu’s 1997 single “Other Side of the Game.” In it, Badu vocalizes the difficulties faced by a young Black woman trying to support her partner who is navigating the drug game for the financial resources needed to care for her and their small child. It is well known that predominantly poor communities of color in the United States are often deprived of the proper resources for, and sufficient access to, good education and adequate employment. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander eloquently delineates how this reality is a purposeful reiteration of racial subordination designed to relegate young men of color to a life of street hustling and jail time. Where Badu expresses the various ways Black families attempt to navigate such a treacherous socioeconomic terrain, Jones deconstructs the bodies of knowledge that produced it in the first place.
Much like David Hammons and Hank Willis Thomas, contemporary artists who have scathingly criticized the sports entertainment industry in their work, Jones deconstructs football equipment to illuminate how racial oppression plays out on the field. Recruited from high school to play football at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, Samuel Levi Jones experienced both the triumphs and the pitfalls of collegiate sports. Thus, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to “take a knee” in silent protest against the oppression of people of color in the United States, Jones created a body of work including Agency, Giant, Black Artist, and Black Athlete, to express the solidarity he felt with Kaepernick as both a Black man and a former football player.
Jones’s personal experience with police maleficence led to the painting from which the exhibition takes its title. During a late drive through Irvington, IN in 2006, Jones was stopped multiple times by a white officer whose only reason for impeding him was that he was “left of center.”
So what does it mean to be racially profiled while driving in one’s own community? What does it mean to suit up every day to play a game you were never meant to win? A game whose rules were set against you centuries ago and chronicled within volumes upon volumes of legal policies, scientific “facts,” and historical data? Jones shows us that we win nonetheless. That our sheer existence is testament to our skill of play and individual success is even more so. So, how do people of color consistently rise as victors despite such a fraudulent system? Like Jones, we subvert the rules. We remain left of center.
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Originally from Detroit, MI., Dr. Kelli Morgan earned her doctorate in Afro-American Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Public History – Museum Studies in 2017 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass). A scholar and curator, Morgan has worked in a variety of curatorial, programming, teaching, and research positions at various institutions including The Tyler School of Art at Temple University, Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
In early 2014, Morgan was awarded a dissertation fellowship from the prestigious Ford Foundation. She was also named the Curatorial Fellow of African American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art (2014 – 2015), and in 2016 became the inaugural recipient of The Winston & Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellowship for Diversity in the Fine Arts at PAFA. As a critical race cultural historian, Morgan specializes in American art and visual culture. Her interdisciplinary research concentrates primarily on historic African American women artists, however her curatorial work often examines, critiques, and theorizes the ways in which American artists, art objects, art history, and art institutions both challenge and reify the systematic mechanisms of anti-Black violence and oppression in the United States. By analyzing the ways in which Americans construct visual discourses, conceptualize images, and sometimes resist these discourses, Morgan’s curatorial and pedagogical practices link Art History, Women’s Studies, African American History, and Museum Studies to create stimulating and culturally sensitive educational opportunities for students and public audiences alike.
Currently, Dr. Morgan is Associate Curator of American Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) at Newfields.
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