Robert F. Thompson
When Jean Lacy painted Welcome To My Ghetto Land in 1987 (page 183), she modulated, chromatically speaking, into another key, gold and crimson. Again her purpose is to communicate the staying-power of black culture:, but this time that per- durable quality is suggested by her reference to the time-defying icons of the Byzantine.
When Rome fell, the spiritualized portrait heads of the Christian Emperor Constantine, staring straight ahead, traveled as an indelible mark of the spirit into the Faiyum portraits of Egypt. The latter are often mentioned as predecessors of the Byzantine icon.126 That same riveting gaze appears in the paintings of Faras along the Nile,127 as well as in Byzantium proper. Likewise, Ethiopian painting, probably via black pilgrims to Jerusalem, became heavily indebted to the Byzantine manner.128 "The gaze" spread there, too. Thus, the spiritualized look of the first Roman emperor to become a Christian binds Faiyum, Faras, Byzantium and Ethiopia in a related set of irnage-forms "intended to bring peace of mind by teaching the everlasting truths [beyond all] change."129
Jean Lacy is no stranger to the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. where she once lived and where she absorbed art history directly from originals. With this richness of background, she later determined, in Welcome, to translate a black tenement into a Byzantine altar so that the latter's aura of everlastingness would honor the equally abiding truths which have stemmed from the classical religion of Kongo in this country.
In the fifties, Jean Lacy witnessed, first-hand, Kongo-influenced bottle-trees and bottle-porches in Plaquemines Parish, in the Mississippi delta south of New Orleans. But she does not allude to those aspects of Central African continuity in this painting. What she does, rather, is to fill in spaces wherein the frontal stare of the classical Byzantine figure might have occurred, with African-American gestures, some of which stem from Central Africa.
Thus, pride of place is given over to a woman in the doorway who strikes "the Kongo pose": one arm up,the other akimbo, hand on hip. Aggressively dressed in red, this woman is very strong. In the potency of her Kongo gesture, the artist intuits to the viewer that she talks tough, testing us all the time, but only to conceal enormous love. She wants her daughters and her sons to grow up strong.
Further images of protective women deepen an aura of enabling grace. Two black women on the first floor loom like Buddhas, one, behind a woman caught in a pose of lamentation, the other behind a young girl dressed in white, "perhaps in a confirmation dress, or perhaps a sign that she is iyawo, an initiate into the Afro-Brazilian Yoruba religion."
Lacy used twenty coats of gesso in building up her icon of the ghetto. She also availed herself in a particularly rich usage of the color gold,130 as an emblem of Asante and the gold in kente cloth, flowing in from the old Gold Coast to the modern Black American city.
Black women and men enliven this field of gold and red with gesture and action. A man hails the street from the second floor left. In the middle stands a woman in the window, all dressed in white, and to the right a pair of lovers are outlined in another window, embracing.
The top floor is given over to flanking figures who survey the street perspective. In the center appears a Crucifixion, the figure suspended from a cross that is invisible. Christ bursts out of the frame of 'the window and projects into space. Black Christ takes on the suffering of His people, as symbolized by a rat on the awning at the bottom and roaches crawling on the side-walk.
Yet, in this very degradation, there is a hidden pocket of transcendent meaning: a pair of pygmies from Central Africa support the entire tenement, as caryatid figures. Lacy's empathetic vision of pygmies is not unlike that of her spiritual sister, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who once answered Edward Young's piece of cultural arrogance-
"Pygmies are pygmies still, though percht on Alps"
Jean Lacy has stated explicitly that the gentle forest people, their laughter. and spiritual insight, appear in this painting to symbolize "the beginning" of blackness. Their yodelized song, which arrived via Kongo slaves, structured the holler and the field cry. It leavened the blues. It absorbed the locomotive whistle in the night, becoming a quintessential emblem of black yearning. Pygmies, "the dancers of the gods," beloved of certain Pharaohs in ancient Egypt, helped build the song that named this nation.