“The painting is about both the transatlantic slave trade and what it means for present-day black people to be Americans,” says Marshall, 57, in his sprawling studio on the South Side of Chicago. “In a lot of my work, those things overlap.”
Indeed they do. In “Great America” and about 30 other paintings and drawings in the National Gallery’s “In the Tower” series entry — Marshall’s first solo exhibit in Washington — the artist evokes the complete journey of African Americans, from those first ships as human cargo to more recent crossings from poverty to relative affluence (though the latter often feel less triumphant than they might). And from beginning to end, the show floats on images of water, from the treacherous sea to riverside baptisms to suburban backyard swimming pools and back again.
“We move from maritime to suburban imagery, tracing the whole narrative of the middle passage to the African American entrance in middle-class prosperity — the American Dream, if you will,” says National Gallery curator James Meyer, who organized the exhibit around “Great America” — which the museum acquired in 2011 — and its theme of water. “The question of the show is: What is the American Dream for the descendants of slaves? How is it different from those whose families immigrated by choice?”
The images are also laden with symbols of African cultural and religious practices that the slaves brought with them and maintained, sometimes disguised by or blended with the Christianity that they adopted in the New World, voluntarily or not. There are Yoruba deities such as Yemaja, maternal goddess of the open sea, who watched over the sojourners of the middle passage, and Oshun, goddess of erotic love, who morphed into a mermaid in Haiti and Brazil. There are Vodun (also known as voodoo) effigies and Hoodoo folk magic along with mystical Catholicism and charismatic Protestantism — the African soul adapting and transforming itself into African American soul, restless and resilient, wading in the water.
“The very idea of the baptism is being born again, dying in the water and rising as some new thing,” Marshall says, surrounded by paintbrushes and vast canvases in various states of completion. “But that was a difficult thing for Africans to negotiate, because Christianity didn’t always come as a means of salvation for them. There was a belief at the time that Africans didn’t have a soul, and because of that, they were perfect for enslavement. Later on, people who didn’t convert were often killed, so conversion to Christianity was a way of surviving. In the process, you had to figure out a way to embed your own religious practices into Christian practices, which is why you have African deities masquerading as Christian.”