When people talk about using the world around you, through your experiences, thoughts, and emotions, to create a quintessential centerpiece that is conveyed through the lens of a camera, that experience can be seen in the soul of the works of Maude Schuyler Clay and Jamal Cyrus. Their art uses simplistic subjects and objects that engenders a unique time, space, and place for each observer.
Both these exhibits, which can be viewed at the Mississippi Museum of Art from now until March 5, 2023, go together like peanut butter and jelly. The Southern Experience can be seen in both Clay’s (who’s originally from Greenwood/Sumner, MS) and Cyrus’ (born in Houston, TX) work. They have taken their personal environments – iconic figures, pop culture, and events – and used them to create art. Each photo depicts life scenes and historical events that resonate with the viewer because they are of people, places, and things that are familiar and found in everyday life.
The opening of the two exhibits, which occurred on Friday, October 25, brought numerous visitors from around the state. Two visitors, Charmagne Andrews (70-years-old) and her mother, Mrs. Ponjola Andrews (90-years- old), came from Magnolia, Mississippi as the special guests of Phoenix Savage, co-curator of the Clay exhibit.
Maude Schuyler Clay: “Portraits of a Place” exhibit explores the Delta landscapes, and people of Clay’s hometown. She develops her surroundings into a visual photographic album that are relatable to not only Mississippians but global observers.
“Portraits of a Place” is set in and around the backdrop of her birthplace of Greenwood and her present day home of Sumner, Mississippi. The Mississippi Delta that has been called the “Most Southern Place on Earth.” Her “Little Gems” consist of small portraits of children playing games such as Monopoly and hopscotch.
Clay’s guest co-curator, Savage, is an esteemed Professor of Art & Mass Communication at Tougaloo College who is in residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico. Savage says, “Clay’s philosophy is that photographs should stand on their own, unsupported by literary-style titles. The audience is encouraged to look closely at the details of each image to connect to its visual stories. The images in “Portraits of a Place” may serve as a mnemonic, a memory device, to recall the disappearance of time. They inform us of a people and their social placement, the landscape’s fading architecture, and personal freedoms squeezed out from under historical social constraints.”
Savage divides Clay’s works into four categories that include:
• “Little Gems” – little children playing games in different scenes that tell intricate details life
• ”Fruit Sweets” – illuminating still photographs of Southern food delicacies.
• ”Series of Landscapes” – depicting Delta landscapes and scenes of everyday people.
• “Erasing of Sally Mann” – exploring the relationship between two photographers – Sally and Maude – who exchange letters written on the backs of black and white photographs.
There is a digital component of the exhibit that tells the story of Jasper Staples that demonstrates relationships between employers and domestic workers in the Delta, and the relationship of the larger Black community/family experiences of Black Mississippians and what is taking place in society in the segregated South with their domestic help during a time and place that was commonplace in the Delta back-in-the-days and years of Jim Crow laws, according to Savage.
Jamal Cyrus’ exhibit is best explained via the media notes that tell of his “expansive practice exploring the evolution of African American identity within Black political movements and the African Diaspora. He is especially attuned to the cultural cross-pollination and hybridity that emerged from cross-border interactions in historical eras – from Ancient Egypt and the sixteenth-century transatlantic slave trade to the Jazz Age of the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. His aesthetic combines an enduring interest in music and record shops with an expansive array of materials. In doing so, Cyrus’s vexing contemporary artifacts commemorate and question iconic figures and the understanding of historical events.”
One of the most outstanding features of Cyrus’ exhibit, “Lights from the Garden,” draws the attention of the African American eye. “The sculpture features a stack of seven chairs that mirror those on the stage where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 by rivals within the Nation of Islam at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. The shape of the formation also references the minbar or pulpit from mosque architecture where an Imam stands to deliver sermons. The piercing of this stepped altar by fourteen stainless-steel rods (known in forensic science as ‘trajectory rods’) references the fourteen times Malcolm X was shot, as well as the ambivalent nature of his influence, with themes of unification, congregation, and order simultaneously erected and perforated.
“Cyrus forges vexing contemporary artifacts that commemorate and question iconic figures and events. Cyrus simultaneously excavates and imagines moments in African American history in the United States and beyond, tracing movements within the African Diaspora as well as flashpoints in civil rights, popular culture, and the performance of Black political movements. He does so in an aesthetic language that marries an enduring interest in music and record shops with an expansive array of materials and their evolving cultural contexts.”
Another of Cyrus’s outstanding exhibits utilizes pop culture expressed in R&B vinyl record album covers to tell the stories of Black life.
The Mississippi Museum of Art is the final venue of the “Jamal Cyrus” exhibition tour. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalog available in the Museum Store. The “Cyrus” exhibit is organized by the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, Texas and curated by Steven Matijcio and Jane Dale Own, director and chief curator at the Blaffer Art Museum. And the MMA coordinating curator/chief curator and artistic director of the museum’s Center for Art & Public Exchange is Ryan N. Dennis. “The End of My Beginning” by Jamal Cyrus is available at the MMA bookstore ($35).
The Mississippi Museum of Art is open Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Admission prices are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors (65+), and $10 for youth (ages 5-17) and college students (with ID). Free admission for museum members, children ages 5 and under, and K-12 students on Tuesdays thanks to Feild Co-Operative Association and Thursdays thanks to Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi. The presentation of Jamal Cyrus: “The End of My Beginning” in Jackson, Mississippi is supported by the Cadence Bank Foundation and the John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation.
For more information, visit www.msmuseumart.org.