A man and a woman are sitting together in twilight. She leans her head on his shoulder, resting against him, and closes her eyes. He is bowing a cello. The wooden curve of it rests between his knees and his bare feet. Around them in the dusk, the photograph gives a suggestion of summer grass and sapling trees in flower.
On a December night in North Adams, they are looking out across Main Street. Lorenzo Baker has set them at the center of his new installation with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ Art Lab, alongside Nathaniel Donnett’s exhibit at Gallery 51.
Baker is celebrating a year-long collaboration with MCLA. Every day since January 1, he has taken over their Instagram, posting new artwork, in What Happens if February Never Ends? — a series celebrating and exploring Black life in America, past and present and future.
He will run the project through New Year’s Eve, and in these final weeks he has created a new physical artwork in the Art Lab window, inspired by the first anthology of Black American poetry ever published in the U.S. A group of free Black poets in New Orleans in 1845 came together to create a collection of their own work called Les Cenelles, Hawthorne Berries.
This year has brought a raft of discoveries and explorations like this one, Baker said, talking on zoom from home in Los Angeles. He sets his work in new ground between past and future, and between art and technology.
He explores internet archives to imagine digital collages, an amalgamation of images — people, landscapes, outer space — and he layers them to produce collages with color gradients for background. On the wall behind him as he speaks, a cartfull of laughing people are riding a rollercoaster with images of Saturn in the blue wash behind them, as though the ringed planet is rising in the sky.
Drawing on the influence of artists like Charles T. Harris, a photographer in the 1950s and 1960s in Pittsburgh, Baker is pulling photographs from archives, the New York Public Library and other sources of free access. He looks for images that stand out, he said, scenes outside the traditional that feel odd or unusual.
“They make you slow down and ask what was happening in this moment,” he said. “I like images that point outward. They make people wonder what else is going on and say ‘I’d like to know more — I’ll Google this.’”
“I’m pushing people to be inspired and to search for their own — not necessarily truth — but to search for history and see what they can uncover.”
The physical installation first flickered through his mind as an idea, he said, from the name of the whole series of work, the February project.
He chose the name partly to Black History Month, and to the potential and possibilities that rise and spill over when these stories move beyond 28 days and across the year. And now he wanted to reach toward more associations with late winter. People often think of February as the month of love and romance, he said, and he wanted to incorporate into the project overall a representation of Black love.
This image shows a man and a woman together, not as a limitation but as one kind of love among many. Baker has chosen to present a dreamscape as a loose interpretation of one poem from from Les Cenelles, The Dream, by Armand Lanusse.
In the poem, Lanusse shows a man made use of, exhausted in the face of an enmity that seems to come at him from every point in the universe. He falls asleep holding a broken lyre, and he dreams. He hears a friendly voice.
… ‘from all the cosmos
a beautiful woman calls,
protests, reclaims a song
light or sad, as you will.’
Someone comes to him, encouraging him and telling she is listening. And even with the weight he carries, he feels unexpectedly moved.
In my shaken soul
a being breathed clear air,
a goddess, a woman of fate
offered me a fertile book,
an open page …
When he wakes, Baker says, the musician in the poem lifts himself up and repairs the lyre. Those feelings of being inspired, those metaphors for the experience of love and elation, Baker wanted to bring into his own work. In the photograph he has chosen at the center, he feels an intimacy and a shared private space.
“… In the central image,” he said, “here are two people, and you are peering into their experience. They are not invested in you. I’m allowing people to see into a scene.”
He likes the image for many reasons, he said — he finds moving details in the people leaning quietly together and in the place. The cello seems to partly disappear into shadow, as though it is and isn’t there. The blossoms and the subtleties feel refreshing in this moment, he said, in all the political turmoil and divisiveness in this country.
“I wanted to make something transcending that, at this moment in my practice,” he said. “I’m invested, yes, in what’s going on outside, in the political landscape, but I’m pushing toward something common and ground-level. Love is so much greater than who you’re going to vote for tomorrow.”
‘I’m pushing people to be inspired and to search for their own — not necessarily truth — but to search for history and see what they can uncover.’ — Lorenzo Baker
The poets of Les Cenelles hold for him a sense of hope and strength. He learned of the anthology in passing, he said. He is alum of Dillard University in New Orleans, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
“I wish I’d known when I was there,” he said, “because the university had a lot to do with maintenance of history and archives that went along with Les Cenelles. New Orleans is unique, and the history there is so fragile, and yet it has such a huge impact. It’s obviously worth celebrating.”
The Les Cenelles poets were a collective writing in the early 1800s, well before slavery became illegal in this country. New Orleans had a thriving free Black population then, Baker said, all from a class of society not enslaved and not European. They could have affluence and education and resources.
The poets came from a range of backgrounds: cigar maker Nicol Riquet, mason Auguste Populus, Joanni Questy, a journalist for La tribune de la Nouvelle Orléans, and Victor Séjour, a playwright who founded his career in Paris. Lanusse, who edited the book, founded Black schools and homes for young people without families.
And they faced stiff censorship. Under Louisiana law (according to the preface to the book), publishing of material ‘that could sow discontent and rebelliousness among the state’s free people of color or enslaved population was banned under penalty of life imprisonment or death.’
For these writers to publish a collection of poems and play to human concepts relatable to everyone — it was daring, Baker said.
They were not writing explicitly about politics or systematic racism in the experiences of that time, he said, and he finds that compelling. Given the stereotype that artists of color have to always address identity politics, and the tensions in the world of Louisiana in 1845, with the brutality of slavery visible in daily life, it stands out to him as an act of rare courage that someone would write about a dream.
And yet a poem can read differently, depending on who reads it, he said. Maybe the work had undertones for the poets and readers in their own time.
“At some moments,” he said, “… I could see how this could subtly speak to something, in their layers of language and nuance and how something relates to what comes before or after it. … It may not necessarily be translatable to us at this moment.”
‘… I could see how this could subtly speak to something, in their layers of language and nuance … It may not necessarily be translatable to us at this moment.’
How would Lanusse and his friends understood the symbol of a broken lyre, he asked, as a metaphor for heartbreak or defeat?
“I’ve heard the lyre as a symbol of the soul,” he said. “Is the poet’s soul broken because of what he has lived through? I’m not Lanusse. I can’t give a direct ‘this is what I meant,’ and I love that. He’s creating a stage, and the story plays out. It’s not a maze to lead to a specific place along one specific path.”
In the poem, the woman in the dream tells the dreamer her name and asks him to wake up.
Filled with a new rush and fire
of ideas, I revived and lifted
my lyre and restrung it
— and for her, I sang.
Now after a year of work, looking over the images he has gathered and the new work he has steadily put out into the world, Baker considers the complex layers of the past and the future. He asks what people in this country understand now and what has become lost or changed.
He thinks of Toni Morrison’s Black Book. Across decades of writing her novels, he said, she put together newspaper clippings, articles, photos, moments in U.S. history relating to people of color — many of them left out of the narratives of history she was reading in other places. She held them in her hands and kept them living.
“It’s an amazing book,” he said. “With humans, if something isn’t there, we create it ourselves.”
(Note from BTW — The lines of Le Songe above are simply our translation, and learning to understand them offers layers and possibilities. The woman in the dream asks the dreamer for a song à volonté — as he chooses, as he sets his will to it. So ‘will’ can become both being alive in the future and choosing, wanting, feeling and bringing strength to bear in the present.
And in the last lines, when the dreamer takes up his music again, the verb he chooses for waking also means to be reborn, and the verb for picking up his instrument literally means to climb, get back up — to get on a horse, to walk upriver to the source. It’s an exercise of will, lifting up, returning to vital force.)