When I saw Mutemath's latest music video for "Monument", a beautiful tribute to the love between an 82 year old Mississippi man and his deceased wife, the happy tears flowed. The video provides a glimpse into the home of Charles "LaLa" Evans which is unique because it has been transformed into a museum that's dedicated to the love of his life, his wife Louise. His house features a dense pictorial collage on walls displaying mementos, photos and other ephemeral that extend into a lush grove of brightly colored umbrellas whimsically dotting the yard. In this video we see a happy celebration of life that evokes the jubilant funeral processions one encounters during a "Second Line" in New Orleans. There is no mourning of death here, he rejoices in life.
While doing research on Southern Yard Art for Thornton Dial's post this week, I thought about that music video, the collages and the colorful umbrella tableau. The similarities in artistic expression were too important to ignore. Much of my exposure to art history hinges on moments of serendipity like this. I learned that Southern Yard Art is a relatively unknown practice that is infrequently discussed yet is vitally important to both African American and art history.
Yard Art, or "Yard Shows" grew out of the black belt culture of the south. As a precursor to Assemblage, Yard Art consists of discarded objects like bottles, tires, furniture, cast iron and other materials refashioned into shrines and sculptures that are integrated into the surrounding environment.
The artistic transformation of the objects injects new life into the material and serves as an important vehicle for communicating veiled commentaries on history, society and politics. Historically this artistic expression was a shield used to protect West African cultural traditions that slavery and Jim Crow attempted to suppress or destroy. African Americans subverted these attempts at suppression through disguise. To the untrained eye, Yard Art appears to be whimsical piles of discarded trash, but the recasting of these materials held symbolic power in storytelling and artistic and oral tradition. Much like early forms of graffiti art, creative expression was produced through limited means and the effects were largely temporal. Most Yard Art has a lifespan of months and as a result, works rarely make it to the white cube or are recognized by the art establishment. This is unfortunate because this slowly fading practice of transforming scraps into signifiers played an important role in communication, oral tradition and creative expression among African Americans.
Chicago artist Theaster Gates describes the process as "redeeming things from the obscurity of nothingness". By taking discarded objects and inbuing them with a new purpose, the transformed object takes on another life to serve a broader purpose. Charles LaLa Evans has a passion for love, people and music that he expresses through the art he creates in his museum and the video emotes that expression brilliantly. This particular form of Yard Art is not only a beautiful testament to love and life but also a living legacy that triumphantly demonstrates that "art is the possibility of things".
Grab a tissue and watch this beautiful tribute to love.