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Repurposing Racist Memorabilia in Nick Cave: Until

Nick Cave: Until is a visual arts exhibition filled with deeper meaning beneath its colorful, shiny surface. Just look at the private garden above the Crystal Cloudscape, a place so chock-full with knick-knacks, it’s hard to focus on just one object. Yet nestled between flower and bird trinkets are a collection of black-face lawn jockeys, an example of racist memorabilia that has endured for centuries in the United States. 

In an interview with art21, Cave explains his interest in these jockeys. “I was collecting objects that speak about nostalgic moments in history. For example, I found 17 Black lawn jockeys. I am interested in the repressed, dark, and racial commentary embodied in these artifacts. I knew that these were loaded objects, and I was very interested in not only the power within these objects but also how I could make decisions to reposition them.”

Denise Markonish, curator of Nick Cave: Until and senior curator at MASS MoCA, assisted Cave in collecting some of the jockeys. In an excerpt from her essay “Finding Fire and Hope in Nick Cave’s Until,” Markonish discusses the history behind the lawn jockeys seen at the top of Crystal Cloudscape and how Cave transforms these objects for a new purpose.

Photo by Ironside Photography.

Read the excerpt from Markonish’s essay here:

“Over the years, Cave has used found objects in his work―ceramic birds and flowers; figurines found in thrift and antique stores, and your grandparents’ cupboards. Cave desires to rescue these objects, remembering the pride and care that his own family took in handling this “art” when he was young. However, in his searches for material, he became alarmed at the proliferation of racist memorabilia he discovered. Cave doesn’t believe this history should―or even could―be erased, which is why he began using these relics, removing them from circulation and imbuing them with new meaning and positivity.

An item Cave has used repeatedly (and which populates Until) is the lawn jockey. One story about the origin of these cast-iron figurines begins with the tale of Jocko Graves, an African American boy who served with George Washington in 1776. Graves was too young to take into battle so was left to tend the horses and keep a lantern lit for the troops’ return. According to the legend, Jocko was so faithful that he froze to death while holding the lantern. Other accounts say the jockeys were used as a secret signal at safe houses along the Underground Railroad. 

Neither story has been confirmed by historians, pointing to the likelihood that these objects came to being in the Jim Crow era, a time after the Reconstruction period (1865-77) following the Civil War, when federal law provided civil rights protection to free Blacks. Jim Crow laws reinforced “separate but equal” segregation, remaining in effect until 1965. The “Jocko” lawn jockey is a black-face caricature with stooping posture, counter to the “cavalier spirit” or white lawn jockey, which is upright and noble. Alarmingly, these ornaments are still prevalent. Russell L. Adams, chairman of Afro-American studies at Howard University, says of them: “The first time you see if, you have a specific reaction―almost like a flashback that you didn’t know was a flashback…it’s like an inherited memory that’s brought to the surface.”

This history led to Cave’s most complex work to date: Until (2016). [On top of Crystal Cloudscape,] Cave transforms the jockeys into agents for change, placing beaded nets in their hands as dream catchers.”

You can read Markonish’s full essay here.

“The lawn jockeys…are all holding beaded dream catchers—my effort to speak about optimism,” said Cave in an interview with art21. “I’m taking a stance. Yes, these objects are out there, in the space of disparity and repression, but I do not operate there. I’m responding to it by designing my own pathway and creating my own lifestyle. In spite of everything that’s happening, I can take control over my destiny and respond to these horrific concerns.”

Nick Cave: Until is free to view at the Momentary, now through January 3, 2021.

 

Nick Cave: Until was curated by Denise Markonish, MASS MoCA, and organized for the Momentary by Lauren Haynes. The exhibition was organized by MASS MoCA and co-produced with Carriageworks, Sydney, Australia, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Principal exhibition support was provided by an anonymous gift. Major exhibition support was provided by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Barr Foundation, the Mass Cultural Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, Jack Shainman Gallery, Marilyn and Larry Fields, BeadKraft, and the Robert Lehman Foundation.

Sponsored at the Momentary by Cox Communications, Goldman Sachs, Airways Freight Corp., Sarah Simmons, Anna and Carl George, Esther Silver-Parker, Visit Bentonville, Greenwood Gearhart, J&D Pallets, Atreides Management, LP, Caryl Stern and Donald LaRosa, Demara Titzer, Tony Waller, and Sue and Charles Redfield.