Numbers Matter to Radcliffe Bailey
“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”
― W.E.B. DuBois
W. E. B. DuBois was prescient in so many ways during the course of his life in thingsthat he studied, researched, said, wrote, and, which many people do not know, curated. Indeed, his clairvoyance, in terms of the problem of the 20th century being the color line is the marrow of so much of the artistic, academic, cultural, and intellectual work of African Americans in the history of the United States, certainly, but also the political, social, and economic manifesto towards civil rights and full citizenship. My own trajectory as citizen, black woman, artist, scholar, and both reader and curator of meaning, owes much to DuBois’ manifesto, as just as the act of learning to and then reading during chattel slavery was an illegal and censurable act, it also was, and remains the most revolutionary act/art by and for many African American artists and scholars. Reading meaning is precisely what I have seen, consistently in the work of Radcliffe Bailey, and continue to see now in his most recent work as he reimagines history at the Jack Shainman Gallery.
I am struck by three themes in Radcliffe Bailey's work focusing on migration, mapping, and black identity. This new work being yet another set of articulations of these very themes; the presence of signs, connections, and specifically, links from America to Africa, and how, per his own words, "I look at my work as a book...every painting is a page.", Bailey reads-paints meaning and asks the viewer to read along in his installations. It, then, is particularly apropos, and salient, that Bailey is influenced by DuBois’s A Small Nation of People exhibition that was held in Paris, The Exposition Universelle of 1900, as he too is interested by and imbues his work with meaning as attached to visual data, as evidence in all the images, beginning with the gray matter, the cranium, numbers, and patterns. Bailey reimagines the Middle Passage, traces memories and makes visible abstract narratives about concepts of identity and dislocation while foregrounding evidence of DuBois fascinating research of the urban and rural black population of Georgia in 1890 while creating patterns of home ownership and occupations of Georgians at the turn of the 20th century.
- Deborah Willis, PhD. 2021