Toni Scott's "Bloodlines": Remembering Yesterday, Understanding Today, and Empowering Tomorrow

By Von Blum, Paul | Journal of Pan African Studies, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Toni Scott's "Bloodlines": Remembering Yesterday, Understanding Today, and Empowering Tomorrow


Von Blum, Paul, Journal of Pan African Studies


Installations have become a staple of contemporary postmodern artworks for the past several decades. These efforts generally include multiple natural and human-constructed materials, including painting, sculpture, found objects, video, audio, film, photography, text, and other features that create a total environment for viewers. The effect is to provide audiences with a complete visual and auditory experience. The most effective and artistically constructed installations evoke powerful viewer responses. They can also perform uniquely valuable educational functions that far transcend the frequently tedious lessons of the conventional curriculum from elementary school through postgraduate studies.

I have seen literally hundreds of installations in my work as an educator and cultural critic. Some, unfortunately, are banal and derivative, often produced by younger artists following in the dreary tradition of emulating artworks they believe to be the current fashion. Others are competent efforts that add modestly to the body of contemporary art, including the growing tradition of visual social and political commentary. Occasionally, I find installations that are so spectacular in both conception and execution that I feel impelled to bring them to wider public attention.

"Bloodlines," by Los Angeles sculptor, painter, and multi-media artist Toni Scott, is in that category. Indeed, this large-scale installation, currently on exhibition at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park in Los Angeles, is one of the most compelling works of visual historical consciousness I have ever viewed in more than 40 years of teaching and writing about the arts. This work combines life-size and smaller sculptures, paintings, montages, maps, audio recordings, slave ship, cotton field, and genealogy tableaux, and other elements. Scott uses photography, graphic design, digital rendering, sculpture in resin, plaster bandage, metal and wood, collage, fiber, cotton, burlap, ink, acrylic paint, moss and twine in an extraordinary fusion of forms and materials in this remarkable installation.

This powerful artwork evokes the memories of slavery and its legacies in the United States. Toni Scott is an African American artist of mixed ancestry who is committed to bringing the tragic story of the African American experience to her viewers, engaging them in a quest for deeper historical consciousness. Her broader artistic vision makes her equally committed to linking that history to the present, especially to the continuing impact of American institutional racism. Likewise, she seeks to reveal the close connection of slavery to the Nazi Holocaust as well as to other examples of historical genocide and inhumanity. In preparation for her exhibition, she visited the Simon Wiesenthal Museum in Los Angeles and observed the unnerving but moving depictions of Nazi atrocities, paying particular attention to the human consequences of the Holocaust.

"Bloodlines" is remarkably similar in its profound emotional impact to the Wiesenthal displays as well as to some of the exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. As with all installations (and all art generally), the full impact requires an actual visit; any verbal account, at best, can only approximate the deeper meaning. Still, art criticism is valuable in augmenting the impact of any artwork, offering an interpretative perspective to larger audiences and encouraging some readers to move from the written word to genuine personal experience itself.

The installation itself, first created in 2009, occupies approximately 1700 square feet of space. Visitors entering the exhibition first encounter ten small-scale three-dimensional figures, mounted on wood planks, on the wall (Figure 1). Although these are later dwarfed by the larger elements in the full sized installation space, they are nevertheless hugely significant. They are individual faces; although anonymous, they represent real human beings whose lives were lost during the horrific Middle Passage and during the centuries of slavery in the Americas. …

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