Who Set You Flowin'? The African-American Migration Narrative

By Farah Jasmine Griffin | Go to book overview
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Safe Spaces and Other Places: Navigating the Urban Landscape

Jean Lacy Welcome to My Ghetto Land (Figure 3.1) depicts the facade of an urban kitchenette building. As with The Women of Brewster Place, a variety of black women, alternately sensual and sacred, lean from the windows of the tenement, each seeming to possess her own tale. The small 6″ × 3″ rectangular wooden panel is divided into smaller rectangles that become the bricks, windows, and doorways of the building. The dominant rectangular shape is softened by the addition of curved arches, which top the windows and doorway. Intense primary colors along with the architectural elements--columns and arches--lend a stained-glass quality to the painting. Together, these forms and colors align the building with a cathedral. The cathedral motif is furthered by the gold leaf outlining and the female figures, who in this context become religious icons. The technique of gold leafing, the medium of wood panel, and the iconic figures are all elements of medieval illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance gold leaf panels, and Russian religious icons. Outside, Lacy incorporates elements drawn from various West African traditions: sculpture-textured drums, turtles, and twins are situated on the outside pavement and at the foot of the building as if to protect the house from the outside world. In other contexts Lacy uses the turtle motif to signify the historic migrations that have characterized black life throughout the African diaspora.

The combination of European religious motifs with those from West Africa indicate that the inhabitants of the building are inheritors of both legacies. In Lacy's painting, the kitchenette building becomes a sacred space that is the domain of black women. The women are softly curved, echoing the roundness of the arches and countering the harsh rectangular form of the painting. The arches and their curved bodies evoke both the secular and the sacred. Such a combination is one that seems like a paradox in the Western tradition, but in the West African tradition it is not as rare. Light emanates from the women like spiritual auras. The two sets of figures on the first floor are madonna and child images. The sensuous women of the second and third stories are more like saints than madonnas. However, unlike saints of the Western tradition, Lacy's women are

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