Journey to freedom in light and color

Dec. 05, 2013 @ 10:12 AM

“Joseph Holston:  Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad,”
North Carolina Central University Art Museum, through Dec. 13. Hours are Tuesday-Friday,
9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m. For information, call 919-530-6211.

Joseph Holston’s “Protection” introduces the viewer to his autographic style and begins his pictorial narration of the journey of African-Americans from their arrival on America’s shores through the dehumanization of slavery, their journeys of escape and, finally, their triumph of freedom. The artist depends on line, color and shape to tell his stories; his style falls within the rubric of cubist-abstraction. Faces are blank; bodies are curved and bent into shapes that show us fear, sorrow and happiness. Color is his key.  For the visitors who walk around the gallery without stopping to read the labels Holston’s color moves them from the darkest, blues, purples, blacks, and magentas of anguish and violence, to the golds, yellows, pinks and pale blues of joy and jubilation.
Organized by the University of Maryland University College, the exhibition includes 50 paintings, etchings and drawings; the etchings and drawings are either studies for the paintings or have become series based on particular paintings.
Holston (born 1944) lives and works in Takoma Park, Md. His formal training was in commercial art, but he left the field in 1972 to study and refine his skills as a painter and printmaker. He had his first solo show in 1978 at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.
Kenneth Rodgers, director of the NCCU Museum, first saw his work in Maryland in the 1970s and, when he found out an important show of his work was traveling around the country, determined to bring that exhibition to his museum.  Rodgers, who is also on the art teaching faculty, said he has never seen his students as excited about an artist as they are about Holston and these canvases.   
The exhibition is organized on four themes and is arranged that way in the gallery, beginning with “The Unknown World.” “Arrival in the Unknown” is one of the canvases in this segment and, in it, we see black men and women huddled against the backdrop of a schooner mast and a few lines that represent the ocean; two white men dominate the foreground. The story unfolds in cubist segments; the meaning is clear. 
It is also in this section we see men and women in chains, silhouetted figures on the auction block and a child being pulled from his mother. 
In the next segment, “Living in Bondage - Life on the Plantation,” reality sets in. Among the images in this section is a woman cowering as the shadow of a man looms over her; the painting is titled “Rape.” Another is “Patter-Rollers” (white men whose job was to catch runaway slaves), dark shadows of men leaning forward, gun in hand and dog in front, against the light of the moon. This section is the darkest and “Property Loss” with its four figures, one with a noose around his neck, is the perfect example. Although it is clear they have lost a slave worth money, it is also clear that the loss is about the human soul, and while one is dead, the others have lost their humanness.
But this is a story with a happy ending and so we move to “The Journey of Escape,” and see the colors becoming brighter in each of the canvases.  As the slaves begin their journey toward freedom the artist tells his story with the addition of yellows and golds in his canvases. The story of the Underground Railroad is told in large images. 
In one, figures huddle together in the forest, but hope of escape is the artist’s promise as he lightens the sky. One very simple painting, “Freedom Stop” says it all. Here he paints in two figures against a background of a small house; the windows are brightly lit, welcoming these tired and frightened travelers. Holston fills his final segment, “Color in Freedom” with rainbow colors and figures who stand tall and wave their arms in joyous song. Included in these canvases are figures making music. There is the banjo player and the flutist and the sun which covers half the canvas. The artist takes us one step further, and his last canvas is called “Responsibility of Freedom.” The figures move toward the bright light of the future; freedom, the artist tells us, is just the beginning.
Holston uses the power of color organized into compositions to relate to a physical environment. The entire show is about color and how it is used as effectively as sound.  We hear the sobbing of that mother as they tear that child from her arms and the weariness of the workers as they plow the fields. We also feel the fright and the strength of these women and men as they leave the places they know to travel to something they hope will be better and we hear the strumming of that banjo and the trill of the flute. As an artist Holston moves us from a group of human beings at the depths of despair through trials that perhaps only Job would understand to the brilliance of triumph against the most evil of human violence. 
There are many artists who have painted the story of the enslavement of the Africans and their ultimate freedom, Holston is not the first. With his talent, however, he has enriched the history of this terrible time and has become one more important voice to say, “Never again.” In these canvases Holston uses the power of art to tell this story; we do not need words.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.