NARRATOR: This large banner-like painting by Kerry James Marshall is part of a series called Souvenir, intended to commemorate important African-American cultural figures of the 1960s.
KERRYJAMESMARSHALL: Now, one of the things you’ll see in the paintings, is there’s a list, or roll call, of individuals. And in the painting here, Souvenir IV, at the Whitney Museum, the roll call is a list of musicians, and in this case, they’re all blues, jazz and R&B musicians.
NARRATOR: Across the top of the painting, in the cloud-like forms, are the faces of other musicians.
KERRYJAMESMARSHALL: And in that pantheon of images there, you see people like Dinah Washington, you see Billie Holiday, you see John Coltrane, you see Wes Montgomery, Little Walter, and each one of those musicians in the pantheon across the top also speaks the name of another musician, so it’s a way to try to get as large a roll call as I could.
NARRATOR: Marshall included musicians who died between 1959 and 1970, the years bracketing the sixties.
MARSHALL: 1959 was when Billie Holiday died and 1970 is when Jimi Hendrix died. And you can see in the bottom curl of the scroll floating in the middle of the living room, that “J-I-M” underneath that curl begins the name of Jimi Hendrix.
One of the things I wanted to do with the naming of all of these other people, who also died during the same period that the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King died, was to expand the pantheon of people who were worthy of remembrance to include people who didn’t receive the same kind of popular commemoration that the two Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King did.
NARRATOR: Marshall sets this painting in a contemporary middle class interior, except that his protagonist, an elderly woman, has a pair of wings, like an angel.
MARSHALL: And I think in a way, one of the things I was trying to suggest in the painting is that this is the world we live in. It’s ordinary and magical at the same time. And the thing is, at any moment we can recreate or call up visions of these people and re-live a sense of the time through the power of what they produced.
NARRATOR: You’ve been listening to an excerpt of Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth.