Charly Palmer is all in. Blackness. No half-stepping. No excuses. The Power of BE, 15 new paintings by the Atlanta artist, are vivid, large-scale works that act as an artistic benefactor for Black humanness. See them through March 25 at Mason Fine Art in Midtown.
You’d be wise to pause and take in the saturated color and specificity in each piece and to note the commonality in their titles — each begins with a “Be-” syllable.
Becoming, a 60 x 48-inch acrylic on canvas and the exhibition’s focal point, details the journey that began in Africa. Notice that the first figure wears symbolic, geometric African patterns and a grand floral headdress of wisdom and strength. The next three bodies are bare, but if you dare to stare, you’ll see the power within slavery, bondage and deliverance. Interestingly, the last figure walks in the sun, his body continuing slightly past the edge of the canvas, perhaps depicting an ever-ending life.
In exhibition materials, Palmer says that The Power of Be is “both a statement about what is happening now and a question of what’s beyond. [It] also stands alone as a statement of how we exist in the world today, something that is ever-evolving.”
For more than 30 years, Palmer’s art has spoken for itself, perhaps most loudly last July when he did the cover art and several inside illustrations for Time magazine’s “America Must Change” issue and, about the same time, with singer-songwriter John Legend’s Bigger Love album.
Palmer’s signature florals (inspired by Irma Walker, his late mother) are seen in much of The Power of Be. Black beauty thrives in stories of past and present. The term “be” is evident throughout, including in Palmer’s music and fashion collaborations. Make sure you take your cellphone and earbuds to get the full experience.
You’ll be able to access QR codes to hear original music to accompany your journey. Palmer created the music with the ensemble Bouquet, formed for this project — cellist/composer Okorie “OK Cello” Johnson, vocalist Malesha Jessie Taylor and DJ/producer Salah Ananse. He also collaborates with fashion designer Kenya Freeman (Project Runway Season 16) who created two original dresses that are a part of Palmer’s Beautiful Blue and Beautiful Bloom, both framed in shadow boxes with silk floral bouquets at the base. Slave-ship replicas are included. Bloom features nature-inspired African patterns and leaves, while Blue is rendered in indigo and rooted in African culture.
Palmer uses his paintbrush as a griot, or storyteller of West African culture and history. He punctuates each painting’s title with a comma (left out here for clarity). Each work wants you to pause in order to receive its stories. Bemoaned, for example, pushes you to go beyond the woman’s hair to its significance as a crown atop a bound body that bears witness to burdens.
In Betrayal, a disconnected connect between the positioning of the man’s head and the woman’s over-the-shoulder stance. You can’t tell who’s point of view Palmer created first. The woman’s ear is close to the man’s mind. What does she sense? Betrayal makes you wonder if Palmer channeled the James Baldwin essay The Fire Next Time: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Baldwin — who Palmer often paints — described love as a “state of being”; Palmer’s subjects seem to reside in a place of being made whole.
Take the woman’s crown, a collage of ancestry, history and weight, including text scattered within: “universe / love / wellness / respect / foundation.” Note that the words “country” and “movement” are upside down. Is the betrayal in the subjects themselves or is it in society? The blue and black circles in her dress, topped by lace, may well share a story of wholeness amid the brokenness, or vice versa.
Beloved makes us smile with its vibrant colors and tenderness, a reminder that we’re all in this pandemic together. We see the hands of parents. One adjusts the child’s floral face mask, the other her bike helmet. Both accessories carry space and stars imagery.
We must trust Palmer’s intentionality. The likenesses of Congressman John Lewis and voting rights leader Stacey Abrams in Be Good Trouble and Be Determined, respectively, display tenacity and strength. The tops of their faces are distinct, the bottoms covered by masks that evoke visions of ancestors and the power of speaking their truths.
This exhibit begins Palmer’s plan to continue exploring “be” installations throughout 2021 — Believe to see. Believe to hear. Believe to embrace.
Twenty percent of the proceeds of art from this show will be donated to Meals on Wheels Atlanta. And so The Power of Be reminds us that everything may be eventually all right. The revelation is real. Be ready.