Leo Twiggs has made a series of batik paintings about a disaster once before.
In 1989, Hurricane Hugo tore through South Carolina, and by the time a year had elapsed, the rebuilding was well underway and Twiggs was ready to document the terrible event. He created 11 paintings that constituted a narrative, telling the story of the storm from its first breeze to its dying breath.
Twenty-six years later, Twiggs has made a new series, and it was the most difficult project of his long artistic career, he said. In a way, he had been preparing for it all his life.
The Orangeburg resident, now 82, has long been fascinated by the contradictions of the South, and he has defined a unique iconography in his work by seizing on certain symbols, especially the Confederate battle flag, its stars and bars, the shape of an “X” and the image of a target, with its sequential rings and bull’s-eye.
That “X,” he says, could be a cross, a crossing (intersection) or a cancellation.
For the new series — nine paintings of Emanuel AME Church, “a testimony to the lives that were lost” — the “X” figure is repeatedly used. But this time it is transformed from a symbol of hate into a symbol of love and redemption.
The series is called “Requiem for Mother Emanuel,” and it will be on display June 21-July 31 at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. A private viewing is planned for church members and survivors. An artist reception, open to the public, is scheduled for 5-7 p.m. July 8.
Twiggs said making the paintings was a long, arduous journey, and that their testimonial nature is why he called the series a “requiem.” The project began when he was invited to make a single batik for the Spoleto Festival’s spring fundraising auction. The work quickly sold for $13,500, and it sparked a bit of buzz.
“You ought to do a series,” prompted Spoleto board member Jennifer Whittle.
But Twiggs needed to stew on it a little; he didn’t want to feel as though he was exploiting the tragedy. On the other hand, the one-year anniversary of the crime was fast approaching.
Scott Watson and his crew at the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs caught wind of Twiggs’ project and stepped in to help. Arrangements were made for a church visit and a meeting with Mother Emanuel’s commemoration committee. All sorts of ideas had been submitted to the committee for consideration and approval.
“This one met with great receptivity,” Watson said. “Leo went with his brother and lunched at the church. He went and had a good visit. It was easy for us to make the commitment to say the City Gallery would be pleased to host it.”
Meanwhile, some of Twiggs’ friends and supporters found some money to underwrite the production of a video in which the artist discusses the project. The video will be part of the exhibition, projected on a large screen on the first floor of the gallery.
Watson said the nine paintings are potent and timely, mining the vocabulary of racial violence, community and religious redemption, and that Twiggs’ video commentary on what was involved in creating the work is a helpful addition.
“I expect it to be a contemplative and reflective exhibition in the space,” he said. And possibly it will encourage more dialogue, more understanding, more action.
Twiggs said his visit to the church was an essential and moving experience that made the project possible. He was especially inspired by the beautiful, glowing wooden interior with its large stained-glass window behind the chancel, he said.
“While I had done several paintings of the exterior, I knew I had to go inside,” he said.
Already in batik No. 5, the blood of the slaughtered is absorbed by the church and the Confederate bars are transforming into the cross. In No. 6, Twiggs takes us inside the sanctuary where the Confederate bars are negated altogether and appear as a white cross, tilted to one side. The spirits of the fallen linger in the space.
No. 7 appears to encapsulate all of African-American history in a single image. The church is both a target and a refuge, in which its people worship, suffer, celebrate and survive, with eyes cast both upward at heaven and downward at the blood-spattered terrain. The “X” is still there, always there, but the crosses outnumber it.
In No. 8, the innocent souls of the dead burst forth from the church to join others in paradise. And in the final image, West African textile design is juxtaposed with a church structure at once all-encompassing and distant, its steeple’s cross but a small mark on the horizon.
And here, for the first time in the series, there is text, a verse from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the ubiquitous African-American hymn known as the black national anthem: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” Twiggs is saying that the Emanuel AME Church shooting was neither the first nor will it be the last act of brutality blacks are forced to endure. But there is a path forward, always a path forward.
He said the batik aesthetic he’s employed was influenced by the pageantry of the funerals, and by the improvisatory nature of jazz music. He also thought about his own ancestors who came through Charleston, such as his great-grandmother Sarah, who endured her own tragic burden.
“What was she like?” Twiggs asked rhetorically of a woman who, when young was torn away from her family. “Did she cry about not having parents?”
Frank Martin, a longtime colleague of Twiggs who teaches art history at S.C. State University and serves as interim director of the Stanback Museum on the Orangeburg campus, said the new “Requiem” series not only used the crossroads symbolism common to the artist but was represented in its entirety the crossroads at which society has arrived, which has been set in harsh relief by the church attack.
It demands answers to key questions, Martin said.
What is the identity of the South? Who is an American? What are our common values? How do we reconcile two distinct ways of understanding the Civil War? The “heritage” of one side is a weapon that, often inadvertently, inflicts injury on the other side.
“It’s sad so many people don’t acknowledge this,” Martin said. “The dialogue of the nation is still playing this out.”
All of this, and more, is embedded in Twiggs’ art, Martin said.
“I find it extraordinary that he had the courage to undertake something so difficult.”
Winston Kennedy, an Orangeburg artist and teacher who has known Twiggs since the 1980s, said there’s an appealing “softness” to the batiks that invite the viewer into a kind of dialogue.
“The beauty brings you into the composition,” Kennedy said. “And you get into the composition and say, ‘Oh, this is where I am.’ ”
Many affiliated with the Black Arts Movement, which was spawned by the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, include explicit messages, even text, in their pictures, Kennedy said. Not Twiggs.
“Twiggs does just the opposite; he puts signs and signifiers in the work.” As a result, the viewer is invited (not compelled) to bring to bear his own experiences, understanding and interpretation, Kennedy said. And it’s this openness, this lack of insistence, that makes Twiggs’ work so compelling and Southern.
Once you looking at it, really looking, you recognize its power, Kennedy said. “It’s a symbol of grace and terror at the same time.
To make the paintings, Twiggs stretched tightly woven fabric on a frame-board, strategically applied melted wax to block the absorption of ink, then painted his lines and shapes and figures. He removed the wax with a hot iron, then repeated the process several times.
Whenever he is at work in his Orangeburg studio, he recalls the words of an old New York University art professor who admired Twiggs’ talent. “Your paintings can’t be too slick!” he told the young artist.
Batik technique often requires a meticulous approach, but Twiggs treats it like jazz, he said. His painted line is akin to a melody, the secondary forms rhythm, the colors harmony.
“I want people to feel the humanity of what I do in the work, because that’s what connects with them.”
For the “Requiem” series, as with all his work, he purposefully avoided sentimentality and polemics. He prefers enigma, he said.
But he does not shirk the difficult truths of black life in the South.
“My experiences growing up in the South, these experiences are calcified within me,” he said.
His interest with the Confederate flag started in the late 1960s when Twiggs would drive from South Carolina to the University of Georgia, where he was earning his doctorate degree.
Along the way, he’d see the flag hanging from Greek Revival homes.
“At first, when I saw these things, I thought it was just about nostalgia,” he said. “Then I realized it was a desire to return to it” — a segregated era.
And today, when Twiggs hears political rhetoric from candidates “Wanting to take our country back,” it sends a chill up his spine. Back from what? From whom?
“Mother Emanuel came out of that, because people were more comfortable with their racism,” he said, referring what made the shooting possible. “We have to process how we arrived at that place.”
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.