the art of trauma: lonnie holley’s modern folklore

October 9, 2018

By Jewel Wicker, for AFROPUNK


Lonnie Holley says we have to “prime the pump” before we can delve into his troubled life and celebrated art. So he takes me around his studio, gesturing, along the way, towards finished artwork and found objects. Located at 787 Windsor, the Atlanta home of AFROPUNK’s Carnival of Consciousness for the past three years, the dense warehouse provides a look into the 68-year-old’s mind and his creative process. Much like his music— which including the newly released album, MITH — Holley’s art isn’t the result of a formalized process.

“I think I’m going to call this ‘The Power Structure of Today,” Holley says, pulling out an unfinished piece he’s been working on sporadically for five months. The artwork centers multiple electrical wires — some insulated, others exposed — around a series of tree branches. Scraps of cloth, giant nails and pieces of wood all weave throughout the piece. Elsewhere in the space, Holley has acquired an old payphone, and another rotary phone is attached to a wooden board. Laying around the space is also a “Thank You” note from a woman whose godson received some of Holley’s art, as well as a series of unfinished spray painted pieces that will be displayed at the The George Washington Carver Museum in Tuskegee, Alabama. To an outsider unaware of the art being created here, the work space might look like an abandoned storage facility, but Holley looks at the found objects within and sees a vessel for piecing together the stories of disregarded communities. He says he began making sculptures out of sandstone after his two nieces died in a house fire. His sister couldn’t afford tombstones, so he made them. Months later, he says, his work was being featured in the Smithsonian.

Lonnie Holley, “The Music Lives On After the Instrument is Destroyed” (1984)

Since the 1980s, that work has also been displayed in museums throughout the world, as well as the White House and United Nations. Recently, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, displayed a few of his piece as part of the exhibit, “History Refused to Die: Highlights From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift.” Included was one of those sandstone carvings that he is perhaps best known for in the art community: “Ruling For the Child” is a breathtaking sculpture of a king and queen seated side-by-side, with the queen holding a child. “Its static, frontal composition and invocation of power and lineage are qualities that conjure the ancient arts of Africa that the artist seemingly aspired to channel,” reads the museum’s wall text, noting the similarities to ancient Egyptian sculptures. Atlanta’s High Museum has several of Holley’s pieces in their Folk and Self-Taught Art Collection, including a piece titled “Grandma with Grandchild Weeping Under Her Angels’ Wings” constructed using plywood and house paint.

Lonnie Holley, “Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music)” (1980)

Upon meeting Holley, he introduced himself as an “African-American artist,” noting the importance of the title in understanding the motivation behind his work. Much of the art is inspired by a past he’s endured personally, as well as the struggles of all African-Americans. The seventh of 27 children, Holley says he was taken care of by a burlesque dancer who eventually traded the malnourished child for a pint of whiskey. Under his new caretakers, Holley says he was hit by a car and knocked unconscious for three months, suffering a head injury, before being arrested at age 11 for missing a statewide curfew. He spent time at the notoriously brutal Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a place that’s been referred to by many as a “slave camp.” There, Holley said children were “beaten bloody” for small infractions, including not eating their food. In his studio, he’s fashioned a scrap of leather around a thick slab of wood, reminiscent of the tool that was used to hit children at the camp, swinging it around to demonstrate what he endured. “It’s just like being shell shocked,” he says, his eyes glassy at the memory of the trauma. “I’ll have to relive that until I’m dead.” Holley rambles through these childhood experiences, many of them blending together in a confusing haze. Yet it is this same stream-of-consciousness that invigorates much of his work, allowing him to piece together various materials to depict the complicated emotions felt by an entire community.

Sometimes, though, this method produces work that feels misguided. “The Fifth Burning Child” sculpture, tied to a 15-minute song of the same name, features a series of burnt electronic items, including a TV. Explaining the artwork in the booklet for his 2012 album, Just Before Music, Holley suggests similarities in the death of a little girl from Birmingham in the ‘80s as a result of “a kind of family neglect” to the deaths of the four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing carried out by white supremacists. In this context, his suggestion that “we got to look past racism sometimes and find the blame within ourself [sic]” felt a lot like saying “what about black-on-black crime?” when black people protest racially-motivated killings. Ultimately, it is a very dangerous way to contextualize black history with a potential impact on the very people Holley is intending to represent in his work.

Cover of Lonnie Holley’s MITH, out September 2018

MITH, Holley’s first album in five years, is an example of how powerful his work can be when he gets it right, though. It’s hard to classify Holley’s music into one specific category, although he readily pulls from free jazz, blues, gospel and other interrelated Black American musical traditions. MITH elaborates on the sentiments of despair and hope he’s long expressed through his art. Holley, who only started sharing his music publicly less than a decade ago, doesn’t write down his lyrics and the freestyle elements of each song helps to convey how messy coping often is in real life, that real emotions can’t always be wrapped up in a three-minute-and-twenty-second song. In the seven-minute long opening track “I’m a Suspect,” Holley reflects on the hardships African-Americans face today, while “I Woke Up in a Slave Ship” finds him imagining himself on the treacherous passage to America.

Matt Arnett, Holley’s manager is cognizant of the fact that this music and the sentiments expressed by the singer haven’t always been welcome by mainstream audiences. He notes that in YouTube’s suggested viewing algorithm, Holley’s “I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America’ is followed by Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” another music video that interrogates the injustices faced by black people. The viral success of Gambino’s song showcases the willingness of mainstream listeners to interact with these concepts in a way that they wouldn’t in previous years.

Towards the end of Holley’s “I Woke Up in a Fucked up America,” he lays naked, curled into a ball. As he’s unquestionably done in his previous works, he bares his pain in hopes of forcing others to take a look at what it’s like to live in a country that has made people who look like him feel as though their lives don’t matter.

“The one inconsistency in Holley’s life has been our understanding of him,” Arnett says. “His understanding of the world, humanity, nature, environment and the earth has been very fucking consistent.”