Door of No Return: An Artist Speaks about Slavery and Fredom



“Predators” Courtesy of Keith Morrison

By Galima Galiullina, PhD for VT

I do not remember a situation that someone’s paintings captured me at first sight, and I wanted to know more about the artist. But it happened with the painting “Door of No Return”, I did not even have time to see the details. I was captured by a wave of emotions hiding in the dark waters of the ocean and in a vessel as narrow as a coffin, clearly unable to sail, but reliably dragging the unfortunates into the abyss. My memory immediately reminded me of both the dead Syrian child on the Greek coast of the Mediterranean, and the poor girl who drowned with her father, who dreamed of a better life in coveted America. Vultures in the picture patiently waited for fresh prey, and in the distance the flag of the British Empire waved … The waters of the Atlantic were hopelessly dark, only the setting sun cast bloody highlights. I wanted to know how it was possible to so sensually convey the theme of slavery without drawing a single dead slave or a cruel slaveholder.

Today I am talking with the world-famous American artist Keith Morrison, whose works traveled to many countries throughout his distinguished career. The exhibition of his works “Passages: Keith Morrison 1999-2019” is open until August 11, 2019  at the Katzen Art Center of American University in Washington.

G.G.: Was your childhood in Jamaica? What memories do you have about the people and cities and villages of this country? Which childhood memories warm your soul, and which memories would you like to erase if it were possible?

K.M.: Yes, I grew up on the island of Jamaica and lived there until I was 17. Then I went to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My memories of life in my homeland are connected with folklore, people’s stories about religion, about birth and death, about funeral rites. Death and funeral in Jamaica cause sadness, as elsewhere, but at the same time it is a celebration. Death for our people is perceived as a sublimation, a transition to another state. People came up with several ways to celebrate death as a holiday, and all these ghost stories and rituals deeply sunk into my memory from childhood.

And, of course, carnivals, with a riot of their colors and dances (we call them festivals) – they also remained in memory and influenced my work. These festivals originate from the time of slavery. The slaves had one free day a year and they prepared for it in advance to turn it into a jubilant hymn for life. These festivals continued after the liberation of the slaves and delight the islanders to this day.

G.G.: Are the people of Jamaica still keeping the real stories about dark times of slavery? Do you remember some stories about resistance and revolts against slave owners in Jamaica?

K.M.: – In Jamaica people didn’t talk about slavery when I was a child. We had  British education and we  never talked about  side of the history of people of Jamaica that had to do with slavery. But later I realized how Britain built their wealth, understood that the great profits they made came from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and from slave labor. Just now my generation is rediscovering the real history of Jamaica and some of my friends are scholars who research slavery.

G.G.: When I first came to the exhibition of your arts here in Washington, I was caught by the heartbreaking series of “Door of No Return”. There were so many symbols: boat as a coffin and everybody can see that it will sink because it is too heavy like the life of a slave, and predators waiting for some fresh meat, and deep waters of the Atlantic ready to swallow anybody who were in this boat. What was the impulse to begin to think about slavery in such powerful images?

K.M. – Living on Jamaica, you are always surrounded by water, an endless ocean that hides secrets in its depths. Slavery came to this region many centuries ago and left a deep although often subconscious imprint on the memory of the people. I thought about those who arrived on ships to a foreign country, chained up, how they felt in an unfamiliar environment, how they coped with the complete uncertainty about their fate, with a feeling of complete isolation about their past life. The slaves did not know what awaited them in a foreign land, but they knew that they had no way back. To survive, they tried to keep in themselves what makes a person a human – the ability to find and create beauty. Hence the freedom to improvise Jazz, the beauty of the forms and the brightness of the colors of African ceramics. Slaves brought and retained Africa with its vibrant colors and rhythms of its drums.

I created the “Door of No Return” cycle after studying the history of those African ports located on the shores of the Atlantic, from which slaves went to the New World. And I started thinking about slavery on several levels. I thought about what happened to the slaves as they sailed the ocean, and thought about those who sold them, their own African brothers, into slavery. After all, very few were abducted by slave traders, only about 5%, it is said, the rest were sold by their fellows.

The “Door of No Return” cycle is a picture of human despair, when you are deprived of your own will, it is akin to the feelings of prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, when people did not know what will happen to them tomorrow, this is a constant fear of the unknown. And, of course, the death of slaves as a natural outcome of slavery, death from the cruelty of slave owners, from inhumane tortures – this is indicated by the image of the coffin in the picture and the vultures awaiting their early death.

G.G.: By the end of the 20th century, the Caribbean became one of the largest centers of predatory lending, organized by the IMF and the World Bank, as well as European and American banks. Even today, the economy of Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua is in limbo between life and debt due to the historically imposed dependence on foreign money. Do you try to send the message through your art about the danger of new forms of slavery?

K.M.: I think I didn’t. I did not conceive of these pictures as a message about modern slavery, in any case, I did not make it a deliberate goal. But subconsciously, quite possibly, I wanted to show people how terrible any slavery is in its essence. Slavery in any form is the door to irrevocable. It is possible that viewers may perceive my paintings as a metaphor about contemporary forms of slavery, but I expressed them as my experience of the past of my people’s history. I paint my pictures, understanding that we need to remember the past so that it does not repeat, those mistakes, tragedies and crimes that people suffered in the past. Humanity prefers the enjoy its comforts rather than remember its mistakes. We think that our ancestors were not as smart as we are. But I would not want the past connected with slavery to be perceived only as the dark abyss of the ocean of suffering. Slaves also had a life, and they lived their lives not only in pain but, when they could, they had joys and dreams. They created generations of millions of people, including me.

You know, I often think that one of the most horrific stories in the life of mankind is the murder of one person, Jesus, when a crowd watches him being nailed to a cross, blood flows from his palms and feet pierced with nails, blood runs from his face and his crown of thorns. The Crucifixion of Christ is a horrible vision, but in Christianity it is glorified. The crucifixion is a horror that evolved into an image that is treasured like jewelry. The Cross is often worn around the neck as jewelry. Paintings of the subject are treasured.  To millions the death of Christ is both a suffering and a glory. Christian societies purge the pain of the Crucifixion by transforming it into a source of ecstasy. In a sense, I make paintings of slavery to have a similar effect, where horror and pain may be transformed to become a source of spirituality.

G.G.: The scientist, Christina Sharp, in one of her works wrote that it would be thousands of years before the atoms of the bodies of slaves thrown into the dark waters on the “middle path” disappear completely from the oceanic system. The Atlantic Ocean is one of the repositories of the effects of slavery. Like the ocean of British public debt, where the ghosts of slaves roamed for centuries waiting for the hour of reckoning, apologies and commitments of the British state to restore what slavery sought to destroy: the black people’s individuality. What do you think about modern America- how black people here protect their individuality?

K.M.: -For me, the question of preserving one’s identity with blacks in America is a very complicated question. First of all, all other mixed races in America are recognized as mixed, but African-Americans are not recognized as such. Although almost all of them are a mixture of Africans with Europeans. Caribbean people recognize that there is a mixture of Africans with Europeans, but the Americans do not recognize this. There are blacks that look white, but they are black. For African Americans, the question “Who am I?” still has no answer. The concept of an African-American does not answer this question, for it is a purely political construct. But you can see that many African Americans are trying to find the answer to the question of who they are, through music, through Rap and Hip Hop, for example. Movements such as the “Black Panthers” and “Black Power” were a  result of awareness of the need to rally on the basis of their identity.

In the visual arts, the topic of African-American self-awareness is practically not disclosed discussed other than by African-Americans themselves. Images of African-American culture and history are very poorly represented in the visual arts. This is especially true of slavery. The same is with respect to the memories about the destruction of 20 million Indians (how many of them were actually exterminated, even scientists find it difficult to determine). In fact, America is a huge cemetery, a giant field filled with the bones of dead people. Most of the states, rivers, lakes, mountains have Indian names, but where are the Indians themselves? This is most often silenced, no one talks about it, the past is denied. The situation is similar with the theme of slavery, and racial segregation.

I came to realize over time that I was expressing my anxiety in my creative work. Paintings such as “The Door of No Return” series are largely about anxiety of the unknown. I imagine myself as a slave facing an unknown fate, with its terror and the resulting anxiety. In contemporary America, even though there is no longer legal slavery, a social anxiety exists due to racial discrimination. This social degradation continues in large part because the legacy of slavery is not commonly taught in American schools, nor are there public monuments to acknowledge slavery. In Germany, they talk about the Holocaust, here they are silent about the history of slavery. You will not find in school textbooks the history of slavery or the genocide of the Indians, there are no lessons about this. Americans voluntarily give up their own history. But the Capitol, the White House were built by slaves. The basis of the history of the country is the theme of slavery.  I try to  tell the story in my paintings. I think it is very important today. This is necessary for us, the descendants of slaves, and the descendants of slave owners as well as all others.

G.G.: Let’s talk about your two paintings: “Hoodie” and “Boys” depict modern young people through the eyes of an artist, who are they? Hoodie – is it to hide yourself from the world or make a challenge to the world?

K.M.: A few years ago, a young man named Trayvon Martin was shot dead at night by a security guard in Florida. The young man was wearing a shirt with a hood, called a “hoodie.”  There remains confusion as to what really happened and why: was he guilty, or was he shot because the guard did not know his intention, or because the young man wearing the hoodie was black?  Generally, a person of color seen in the dark in a white neighborhood instills fear among white people in America — and that is even more so if the person is wearing a hoodie. Young people of color who wear hoodies are especially suspect, but far less so are young white people who also wear them. But anyone wearing a hoodie at night is suspect because the intention, class or race of the person is unknown as it is hidden behind the hoodie. Yet hoodies may have been first worn by Medieval priests and nuns and are no more than a shirt or cloak that covers the head from the weather. But young black men took to wearing hoodies as a style. Some know that their appearance instills fear. But they like the style, even if there is a risk of attack or of being shot. My painting shows a person in a hoodie, but it is unclear what race, color or gender the person is. I wanted to show the danger of the hoodie image and the anxiety and fear it instills in people because of the unknown.

“Boyz” by Keith Morrison, courtesy of the artist.

In America people see skin color before they see gender, or the clothes being worn. African American people are especially conscious of this for they are often targeted no matter how they dress. African Americans who wear conventional suits and dresses are accustomed to being targeted racially despite their clothes. African-American youth rebel against convention and wear clothes that look like that of the poor. From a style that looks like poverty they create world-leading trends in fashion. African American youth are stereotyped as dangerous, yet everyone admires their style and want to dress like them.  My painting, “Hoodie” tries to depict that mixture of fear and style in the clothes worn by young African Americans.

G.G.: Do you see between your students those who are able to challenge the humanitarian crisis of the modern World?

K.M.: I was academic Dean and Professor at several art schools and universities, including the San Francisco Art Institute, the University of Maryland and the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. For decades I taught art students to reflect on art in society. The students were mostly white, for typically in American art schools and university art departments, there are few students of color. And in all these art schools and university art departments the issue of race is an uncomfortable subject. American art education, being predominantly about American and European art history, hardly includes ideas from other continents and even less so issues of race. As a result, it is difficult for students of color to express their true feelings regarding racial problems. I have written a lot on this topic. When I started to study at the School in Art Institute Chicago, I tried to find literature about African American artists, and found only one article in Time magazine. When I completed graduate school, I joined other artists and scholars of color to write about racial issues and cultural differences in art.

G.G: One of the songs of young Russians in the 1980-90’s has these words:

My generation looks down, my generation is afraid of the day.

And it was true: if Soviet youth before perestroyka believed in their country and were confident about their future, liberals who came to power in 90’s, killed the future for them.

Looking at your painting “Boyz”, I see the same: all boys looking down. They don’t see and they don’t want to see their own future. What is possible to change in their life to open their faces and give them a perspective?

K.M.: There are several reasons why these young men look down. One of them is to show the world that they do not care what others thinks of them. The second explanation is that the eyes lowered, and the face hidden by the hoodie show that they do not feel safe, the world harbors a threat to them. There is another reason, too: here in America, if a person avoids direct eye contact with another person, he either does not respect this person or is afraid of him. Among some Asians, on the contrary, if you look down, it is a sign of respect. I even remember the conflict between Koreans and African Americans here in DC about this; African Americans thought that Koreans did not respect them because they did not look them in the eye. On the other hand, I can understand how there might be parallels between the generation of Russians who looked down and our young ones. Racism in the USA remains very strong. I was struck by one observation I read that if you are black in contemporary America you are 5 times more likely to be arrested than in a typical day of the worst year of Apartheid in South Africa. Many African Americans die young, some of my friends died at the age of 20-22. African Americans are the majority of people in American prisons, and the American prison population is]the largest in the world. So, the lowered eyes of the young may represent lost hope.

G.G.: One of my favorite masterpiece of your art – Transcendence (2019)  Women slaves, who look like shadows, create bright like colors of Africa ceramic pots with perfect beautiful forms. They transform their thirst for homeland and freedom in irresistible arts. You told in one of your interviews about your idea of

“Transcendence” by Keith Morrison, courtesy of the artist, 2019.

ceramics as a metaphor for spiritual motivation. Where do you find your own spiritual motivation?

K.M.: My early spiritual motivation, in art school, came from art itself. I was taught to believe in art for art’s sake. The art I saw was the source of my spirituality and inspiration. However, over the course of my life I came to add other sources of spirituality and inspiration, which came from the amazing people I have known,  including many white Americans who helped me in difficult times. Some had no money, they were simple people, but amazingly kind and generous. I have taken inspiration, too, from strangers abroad in distant lands, where, even though we spoke different languages we communicated on a spiritual level and were able to build friendship. My inspiration comes from my  need to make art that tells about human passion.

G.G.: Our modern world lives in the atmosphere of destroyed principle of morality and the principle of the ideal. For example, in Dostoevsky’s novels with the discovery of human imperfection, the intended height is always indicated. That is the best to which one should strive, even if it is unattainable. No matter how crushed Sonya is, her spirit remains bright. And now what? The understanding of the need to build a world around as an ideal has been destroyed.

Were your students looking for their ideal in art and life hoping that you could advise them on these searches? Who could be for them the inspiring ideal of a free man or a freedom fighter in the grip of global enslavement?

K.M.: Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote about the Russian people, their spiritual quest in the depths of Russian culture. Dostoevsky relied on centuries of cultural development and spiritual quest for Russians. In America, there is no central history of such searches because we Americans come from different places and at different times. We are immigrants to the land, not indigenous builders of a common culture. . Previously, this land was inhabited by Indians, but they were exterminated, and with them their unique culture. We do not have a single unifying principle in the form of a common culture of the nation, we are divided. And our divisions obscure  efforts to educate ourselves according to shared principles.

G.G.: Do you feel free in your art, your search of ideas, in the expression of your vision? Is it possible for a person to be free in the world where globalization and liberal capitalism seem to be taking over traditional values and life styles?

K.M.: I can be absolutely free as an artist in my creative search, but I have to think about who needs my art. In capitalism, everything is for sale, so if you want to survive, you need to think about who will buy your paintings. The artist is always faced with a choice: to please the needs of the public or soar over the crowd. I have always combined these two options, doing what gives me the means to live, and creating what is necessary for my soul. Nevertheless, there is a balance between art for spirituality and art for sale. I think this has been true throughout the ages, but in the context of global capitalism, prices for art are greater than ever. So, the temptations to make art with a first objective being to sell is perhaps greater than ever. But I try to avoid it. My first objective in making art is spiritual communication.

G.G.: While I was preparing for this interview, there was an event in San Francisco that made the news: at the insistence of the school board at the George Washington High School, frescoes by Russian artist Viktor Arnautov were to be painted over. The bitter truth of the story was captured on the walls: Indians killed by the colonialists, black – slaves in white robes, working under the scorching sun of the south on the plantations, a dead African American near the feet of the slaveholder. And the owner was George Washington himself, the founding father of the nation. Many artists made a collective request to preserve this unique frescoes, but the school board argued that the frescoes negatively affect the performance of high school students. The adage “He who forgets the past, is doomed to relive it anew” seems to be unknown to American educators.

Fortunately, there are paintings by Keith Morrison, where the free spirit of the descendants of slaves are brought to life in America through the freedom of jazz improvisations, the riot of color and sensuality of African bazaars and carnivals, the rhythms of African drums and the power of feelings that are thirsty for free will.

Galima Galiullina, PhD








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  1. Art is forever … People who were slaves, people who are in prisons – whose freedom has suddenly become the subject of someone’s possession – have always tried to express their thoughts, emotions in creative ways. Correctly say: you can limit the freedom of the body, but not the mind. Modern forms of slavery and restrictions on freedom break old stereotypes. Reason is suppressed, free time is replaced (in prisons) by work, will is suppressed by drugs or fear.
    I often visited art galleries, exhibitions of artists, when was young. It was always interesting – what sense did the author put into this or that picture, feelings, emotions, maybe a message. I have always liked America because of the diversity manifested in art, the extent and diversity of the multicultural composition of the nation. Art is truly forever … Art is the weapon of mind and self-expression.
    Премного благодарен за статью, Галима!

  2. There’s some good reasons why the Irish problems are rarely discussed today, primarily that the feelings in Ireland and Scotland still run very strong, especially in the west of Scotland and the north of Ireland and everyone has decided that the way forward to a lasting peace is to put the past behind them.

  3. In light of all the bad things that have happened; does that illuminate the bad things we are doing now? I’m not so worried about the past as I am about the now. Plenty of that to examine.

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