by Mark Van Proyen
Near the end of 2018, Adrian L. Burrell embarked on a life-changing journey to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, the westernmost nation in Africa. From the middle of the 17th century until 1960, it was a French colony, with Dakar serving as the embarkation point for millions forcibly removed from the Ivory Coast to perform slave labor in those colonies. Given this background, it is easy to imagine Dakar haunted by powerful and unquiet historical memories.
Near Dakar, Burrell had a three-month fellowship at the Blackrock Residency, allowing him to expand his longstanding project of uncovering and exploring his family’s history, which traces to the French colonial period in Senegal. That research, still ongoing, has now coalesced into a vast multi-media exhibition titled Venus Blues, filling the 20,000-square-foot exhibition space at the Minnesota Street Project Foundation. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Tiffany E. Barber, who also contributed a short essay highlighting Burrell’s deep connection to the blues, which she defines as “a liminal space between day and night, between consciousness and unconsciousness…a space where memories, dreams and spirits intersect.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition is an 18-minute, three-channel video installation titled The Saints Step in Kongo Time, a work first exhibited in 2022 and still in progress. Through an evocative mélange of innovative videography, archival imagery and meticulous editing, it tells the story of a multi-generational journey, both personal and collective, of moving from Senegal to Louisiana to Oakland, Burrell’s birthplace. It starts with an accusatory benediction spoken in Senegalese by a female character who calls herself Venus Senegal (played by Marieme Faye), shown sitting on a beach dressed in a traditional garment. Overhead shots of Burrell performing a circular dance and then running across a forlorn landscape follow.
At one juncture, he undergoes a death and rebirth ceremony, aided by women wearing white gowns. Minutes later, we see scenes of sugar cane harvesting while we hear a story of how the Burrell family farm in Louisiana was stolen when oil was discovered on its lands. At this point, the connection between colonial Dakar and Louisiana (a former French colony) comes into focus, explaining why the Burrell clan would later be Oakland-bound.
Throughout The Saints Step in Kongo Time, we hear a voice-over spoken by Burrell’s grandmother, Vanessa, who answers questions about her previous life in Louisiana and her current life in Oakland. (Q: “What did you like about your life in Louisiana?” A: “Nothin.”). We also see vintage street scenes of Oakland’s Cypress Village and Seminary Boulevard neighborhoods circa 1970, populated with a range of African-American characters, subtly reminding viewers of the important roles those communities played in the early days of the Black liberation movement. Even though that was where Burrell’s life began, Oakland also represents the final destination of his migration story, indicating that, like an archeologist, he was working backward from the present. Seen in this light, the Oakland of Saints Step in Kongo Time is like the northeastern cities portrayed in Jacob Lawrence’s famous cycle of late 1940s paintings honoring the Great Migration that took place half a century earlier. In both cases, rural life was abandoned and replaced by urban possibilities because of war-related employment opportunities and the desire to exit the Jim Crow South. The film concludes with a noisy shot of a celebratory Oakland dance party, representing communal triumph over adversity.
Venus Blues also features ten large digital photographs related to Saints Step in kongo Time. God Don’t Like Ugly, shows a younger Vanessa attired in church garb, holding a large pistol while standing before a well-known Oakland restaurant. Hot Comb shows her at a somewhat older age applying hair product next to a stove, using a small mirror to complete the task. Cyclical Symphony pictures the seven women who officiated in the film’s burial and rebirth ceremony standing in formation at a beach.
There are two additional photo-based works in the exhibition, both printed on gossamer fabric. The larger of the two, Antonia, shows a defiant pregnant woman against a backdrop of hallucinatory patterns that seem to fantasize on forms derived from African sculpture. There are also a few installation works. The Thief That Stole My Time, consists of an elongated aluminum planter box perched precariously on a large pile of salt. An aluminum watering can suspended above the coffin-like object seems poised to hydrate its contents. This piece alludes to the scene in the film where Burrell is buried and then reborn. Another installation, Her Garden, depicts seating in front of an elevated platform under a canopy, where we can imagine an after-church gathering where ancestral stories might be told. Unless I missed something, this work has no connection to the film. But it does allude to Toni Morrison’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, which, indirectly, also testifies to Vanessa’s wisdom, generosity, and fortitude.
In many ways, Saints Step in Kongo Time and the other works included in the exhibition tell a story about a storyteller (Venus/Vanessa), doing so through methods that fuse documentary narration with poetic evocations, introspective reveries and quasi-religious fantasies, built around a kind of neo-Hoodooism, described by Judith Wilson as the “belief that every-person is an artist and that every artist is a religious figure.” 1 In its original form, Hoodooism holds that spirits can be summoned by spells and amulets to interact with the non-spirit world, a belief that runs through Burrell’s work at many junctures; it’s manifest as a conjuration of ancestral spirits that pass karmic judgment on the documentary aspect of the film. Yes, there is a complex, multi-generational historical story here, but it’s also a counter-historical tale in that it challenges the racist narrative about slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath. The key attribute of this exhibition is its revelation of how life felt for those who experienced the circumstances it depicts. It also recapitulates Burrell’s family romance as a slow, inexorable triumph of life over historical cruelty.
Central to that romance is Vanessa, who can be interpreted as the earthly avatar of Venus. An interesting historical note is that the name Venus was often given to young Jane Does who were trafficked in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Additionally, scholars have pointed to the existence of prehistoric African sources for the ancient European practice of creating fertility figures, aka Venus figures. Another point worth considering is the sociological cliché of the absent Black father. In one passage of the film, a male speaker ruminates on how he would discourage his male children from taking the same life path that he took. Most of the film, however, depicts powerful matriarchs that have traditionally been central to African-American
culture. For centuries, they have played the roles of healers, storytellers and caregivers. All of this leads to the realization that Venus/Vanessa is best understood as a spectral manifestation of the enduring spirit of Mother Africa, a role played by many other African-American women of her generation. Burrell’s exhibition honors that spirit.
- Ishmael Reed, quoted in Judith Wilson, ”1970s into 1980s– Post-Modernism into Neo-Hoodooism: When Art Worlds Collide,” from Decades, (New York: Studio Museum of Harlem, 1990), p. 140. Hoodooism is a folk religion akin to Vodun, traditionally practiced by African Americans in rural communities. An excellent survey can be found in The Wikipedia article on the subject.
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Adrian L. Burrell: “Venus Blues” @ Minnesota Street Project Foundation through December 3, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.