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An unflinching memorial to civil rights martyrs, Thornton Dial's Blood and Meat

United States

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(upbeat jazz music) - [Ednah] We're in the galleries of the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And we're looking, well not a painting, but something that's probably better described as a painted assemblage by Thornton Dial. - [Timothy] Thornton Dial was born in 1928 in rural Emelle, Alabama, part of sharecropping family. His ancestors knew a life under slavery. And he himself grew up under the Jim Crow system of institutionalized racism. - [Ednah] Thornton Dial had a difficult life and grew up in incredible poverty. - [Timothy] He started working at about the age of seven, picking cotton with his sharecropping family. And he saw how racism affected every aspect of their life. He talked about how the owners of the land would rent it to his parents. But every year when they had to pay the owner the rent through the crops that they raised, somehow they always came up short. So they were always in debt. And this is how sharecropping perpetuated slavery. Anyone who grew up in poverty, and especially African Americans in the deep South, learned to reuse every object. And so Thornton Dial takes the objects that have been cast off and then, re-purposes them, re-invents them into something new that is a work of art. - [Ednah] The ropes, the knots, the fabric that's stretched, the image of a cross with a face on it, this feels violent. - [Timothy] I think viewers are immediately confronted, first by the scale of the work. It's very large. The viewer then notices this incredible, visceral tangle of ropes. It's actually derived from rope carpets that he's unraveled, that has all these connotations of being in bondage or even a lynching. You can see nooses throughout the composition. And he's created this tortured and tangled assemblage of objects that seems to contain and carry and camouflage so many levels of meaning. What you do sense and see right away are these dominant colors, the yellows, the reds, the blacks, and the whites. It's a very elemental pallet and one with very rich associations. - [Ednah] When we stand back, we make out the form of a tiger that seems to be moving toward the left. - [Timothy] At the upper left is the giant head of the tiger. If you look very carefully, you'll see a little round ear sticking out and also, a tongue hanging down. Thornton Dial used the tiger as a personal surrogate or symbol. There was a famous prize fighter, labor organizer, and politician named Perry L. Thompson. But his nickname was Tiger. And Thornton Dial looked up to this gentleman as someone who was fighting for civil rights and someone to be admired. Dial also referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the Freedom Cat. So he made this association with the tiger, a powerful noble animal. Not only is it stealthy and fierce and strong, but also it has the ability to camouflage itself. - [Ednah] There's that feeling of figures hiding here. Not only is the tiger camouflaged, but these faces as well. - [Timothy] There are concealed within the composition several heads. And Dial described them as representing the disembodied presence of some of the most famous civil rights freedom fighters. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is first and foremost. But also Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy as all of them being martyrs for the modern Civil Rights Movements. - [Ednah] This idea of concealment is right in the very center of this painting, where we have this stretched fabric with an opening in the center, through which we see a face. - [Timothy] The concept of camouflage is a matter of life and death in the American South. If you are African American, under the Jim Crow system, it was often to your benefit to not be seen at all and certainly not to provoke any conflict. 14-year-old Emmett Till grew up in Chicago. But he visited relatives in Money, Mississippi. And he had an encounter with a white woman in a grocery store and supposedly whistled at her. And as retribution, he was kidnapped by the woman's husband and his half-brother, tortured shot in the head, and then thrown over a bridge into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till's body was recovered. And Emmett Till's mother demanded an open casket funeral so that the world could see what they had done to her son in Money, Mississippi. Many people date the rebirth of the modern Civil Rights Movement to the death of Emmett Till. - [Ednah] To all those who have given their lives for the Civil Rights Movement, for equality, for justice-- - It is the sacrifice of the high and the great and the mighty and the low and the oppressed and the downtrodden combined that led to the ultimate triumph of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The entire construction that Dial makes is not only tangled and twisted and tormented, but you see the blood-red splashed across the canvass. You feel that the giant powerful tiger has been flayed of his own skin and that the cloth-like form that holds the face of Emmett Till is all that's left of his skin. And then, the crucifix with the little face on the top speaks not only to Christ, but all the martyrs for the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. - [Ednah] This is a difficult image to look at. But I'm also grateful that Thornton Dial is reminding us of these stories and in a way which is so visceral, which is so powerful. - [Timothy] One of his goals in creating all of his work and particularly in this painting, is to remind viewers that these issues are still with us. And they have to be confronted openly and acknowledged and commemorated and then, addressed and redressed. He said, "All my pictures somehow be mostly about freedom. "The black race of people have freedom now. "And we have the opportunity to look back "at what we did and be proud. "Martin Luther King helped us get that "and what he told us about the freedom of life. "My art talk about that freedom. "People have fought for freedom all over the world. "I try to show that struggle. "It's a war to be fought. "We're trying to win it." (upbeat jazz music)