Reflections on Daniel Minter’s Exhibit at Soren Christensen Gallery, New Orleans, May 2014
Earlier this year I talked to artist Daniel Minter in his studio and asked him about the convex figure in the upper portion of several of the newest paintings in his series Water Road. “It’s the boat,” Minter said. That thing representative of the involuntary presence of Black folks in the New World, the heavy vessel of our journey. The symbol of so much cargo, so much loss and weight. “It looms very large in our history so I wanted it big on the canvas,” he told me. “Even still, I’m not completely comfortable with it. It affects us powerfully. But it was not meant for our benefit.”
Daniel Minter is a painter, sculptor and illustrator deeply influenced by a diasporan consciousness in which water and boats are multiple and multivalent things. In the context of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian ritual tradition to which Minter has longstanding connections, water is often associated with feminine power, with coolness and with energies of cleansing and healing. Female divinities are river energies, the sacred power of the sea, the generative and recycling forces of swampy earth, and protectors of the fluids of the womb. All of these meanings of water are visible in Minter’s current work. Like the boat, water was also a tool in the making of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. It was, for many millions of victims of the transatlantic slave trade, both the passageway and the container of trauma. And for the present-day descendants of those folks, in Minter’s work, water is a necessary if sometimes difficult route to a transformed meaning of home.
The boat is a womb and the water is a womb of a new collective identity; they are together the cauldron of the creation of New World Blackness. They are how came we here; the source of struggle and resistance in our history. And yes, the boat is a burden. Curved backs and ambivalent oceans. But there is another meaning of the bend. In Minter’s paintings, the water, the boat and the human gestures are also indicative of some kind of grace…a troubling that transforms. The way to solid ground. Deference to the ongoingness of life. The men in Troubled Waters I and II stand calf-deep in the tide, genuflect with their heads, their shoulders, their hands, and make a new meaning of the water. Gesturing beneath the boats, reflecting the shine of day; the figures are as if in meditation or trance. On one of the vertical canvases a single individual carries a pantheon/a lineage in his raiment. In the other painting, the man bends his body, as if struck in mid-task by some holy thing, his diaphanous shirt tied around his waist. Both trouble the water at their feet, their tribes adjunct, pushing a curative, ancestral scent into the ripples.
The gestures of Daniel Minter’s people (heads inclined, backs leaning forward like feathers, wrists angled to touch a forehead, the wind or seawater) are the sacred movements of West and Central African spiritual forces. The orixás and nkisis who landed in Brazil – but also the saints of a backwoods Baptist ring shout. And there is something else too. Something suggestive of what historian of religion Charles Long calls “the tertia” – that surplus of the interaction between the colonized and the colonizer, between the oppressed and the oppressor, between the enslavers and the enslaved.1 That third thing. The left over. The ghosts. The haints of the making of the modern world. Those who could judge. And do. And don’t. It is an absence of arrogance. And a wisdom. Minter says, “What I’m trying to get at here, also, is the way those old people down south refused hatefulness. For them, there was another way through the water.” It wasn’t acceptance of evil, neither was it always a direct confrontation with the evil. It was a third thing pointing in another direction, hinting at an as-yet-unrecognized power. Troubling the water.
The Water Road series turns our attention to elsewhere. Like the master muralist and painter John Biggers, Minter positions the subjects in his paintings in ways that suggest the troubling…the alchemical turn; the change in meaning; the alternative source of power. Minter’s figures are often in profile. Especially those who are dancing, those who are gesturing obeisance – to the water, to the ancestral energy beneath, to another presence. Their focus and affirmation is from a different source; one viewers may know nothing about. We see half of what there is. There is a side that is unavailable to us.
Finally, this new series of paintings is also obrigação – ritual obligation – in subject and in meaning. Impelled both by Minter’s artistic sensibilities and by the Afro-Atlantic religious traditions from which he draws a great deal of inspiration for his work, the paintings are requirements of the spirit. The necessary work of faith. The claim of the orixás to their chosen. The rites (rights). Três Marias (The Three Marys) for instance, uses symbolically dense icons of the Afro-Atlantic world as an evocative shorthand for accessing and engaging the third thing. The painting shows three women against a dark background in okra-stamped dresses (okra being a food of African origin with religious and cultural significance in many national cuisines of the Americas), their arms in different positions of prayer.
The title and the image are Biblical/Catholic references – reminding us implicitly of the vast presence of people of African descent in Latin America. But the okra and the dance postures mark the women’s links to African spirituality as well. The Three Marys are, of course, a theme in European classical art; and Minter’s use of the title is also a response/rejoinder to the presumptive normativity of that particular tradition. But Três Marias is also the name of a small town in Minas Gerais in Brazil as well as a constellation of stars visible from the southern hemisphere. And all of those elements flavor our reading of Minter’s canvas.
Water Road is a wonderful gathering of Daniel Minter’s newest work. Here the artist delves as deeply as he can into the hinted things, the slight hunch, the curvature, the bended knees and sweeping hands. The turned head. The danced rituals of remembrance. The remnant falling through ocean depths. Here, he offers the symbols of diaspora as an iconography of rites and meanings that help us navigate the troubled waters – a way through. Hair sprouting to okra. Atlantic pearls in braided rows. The path, full of something other than vengeance, that our ancestors in their wisdom chose for themselves, for us. The way through the waters.
Rachel E. Harding, PhD | Denver, Colorado | March 31, 2014
1 Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.