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It is fitting that Carole Morisseau’s work is being showcased in an exhibition titled “Souls of Black Folk.” The show at Detroit’s Scarab Club is so named for a 1903 book by scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.
As the granddaughter of a craftsman and the daughter of a visual artist, the native Detroiter is a lifelong artist by practice and in legacy. Morisseau’s work manifests in paintings, illustration and mixed media; and her career trajectory has traversed many forms, from visual art to dance and teaching.
Beginnings of a journey
“I’ve always been a visual artist,” said Morisseau, “as well as a performing artist, from way back when I started as a child studying visual art and dance. My mother was a visual artist.”
Morisseau’s mother Louise Williams had been an artist as a child but wasn’t encouraged to pursue the field as a career.
“My mother’s father was really creative. He wasn’t a so-called “artist,” but he was a crafts person. He could build anything. He built our family cottage by hand, all by himself—with running water—the whole works, in those days. But even though he loved art, my mother wasn’t encouraged to do it professionally. As a rule, for a middle-class young lady like that, he wanted her to go to college and have a more stable career.”
So Morisseau’s mother set art aside, got married and chose another career—multiple careers, in fact—and nurtured her talent when she could.
“What she ended up doing was taking some correspondence courses,” said Morisseau. “Those are courses that you took at home. They’d send you a box of stuff and you’d fill it out or do whatever the work was supposed to be and then you’d box it up and mail it back. And then they’d correct it and box it up and mail it back to you. It was a long process. It wasn’t anything like doing online courses over the internet now; this had to be done through snail mail.”
As a mother, Williams nurtured an environment in which her daughter’s talent as an artist could grow. After graduating from Cass Technical High School, Morisseau attended Central State University in Ohio on a full art scholarship. That’s what prompted her mother to seek personal art instruction.
“I went away to Central State while she stayed here and studied under Charles McGee and took classes at the [Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts], which is now the College for Creative Studies. She really developed so quickly.”
Morisseau recalled being so proud of the work she had accomplished as a first-year college student, but being blown away by her mother’s work during one of her visits home.
“She opened her portfolio and my jaw just dropped. I couldn’t believe the things that she was doing within the same timeframe that I had done my work. Hers was so superior! I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do. When I finish this semester, I’m going to come home for the summer and I’m going to study where you study.’”
Morisseau did just that. She arrived home for the summer and began studying with McGee and at CCS. Even after her graduation from Central State, McGee remained her instructor and mentor until his death earlier this month.
“It’s really been a wonderful journey. I’ve gotten to go a lot of places and see a lot of things that I don’t think I would have been able to do had I not been an artist.”
‘The Healing Wall’
Morisseau’s works in “Souls of Black Folk” reflect inspiration from her world travels. Her most prominent piece in the exhibit is “The Healing Wall,” a mixed media installation that honors victims of police brutality and is inspired by her experience traveling in the cities of Salvador and São Luís in Brazil as an awardee of the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad in 2018.
“There’s a huge chapel, [the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador], with a huge wrought iron fence around it,” said Morisseau. “When people visit, they take what they call wish ribbons, and they tie them on the fence. They tie three knots, and with each knot they make a wish. Usually it’s a wish for love, health and wealth, or something on that order. All the ribbons are different colors, and each color corresponds to a different Orisha.”
In the Afro Brazilian religion Candomblé, Orishas are the many manifestations of God that help people throughout life.
“But also, when away from the cathedral, people still give away or sell those ribbons,” Morisseau continued. “And since they’re not near the fence, people take the ribbon and tie it around their wrist. They still tie three knots, and with each knot they make a wish, and the color of the ribbon still corresponds to the Orisha. Most importantly, you can’t take it off. It has to disintegrate off. If you take it off, then your wish isn’t going to come true.”
For Morisseau, this experience in Brazil called to mind a funeral practice she heard takes place in parts of Western Africa, where mourners shred a piece of fabric that the deceased would normally wear, then distribute pieces of it to funeral goers, who tie and knot the fabric three times around their wrists. She said, “I don’t know if they make a wish, but it has to wear off or disintegrate.”
Her knowledge of both places inspired her to create a work of art that would highlight the visual beauty of the ribbons on the fence at the cathedral in Salvador and further accentuate African diasporic connections.
“The fence in Brazil was just so beautiful with all of the different colored ribbons. So, I started collecting ribbons and shredding fabrics and meeting with different groups and communities of people and teaching them about the custom. Then I’d invite them to write the name of a person they knew personally or knew of who has been killed or otherwise brutalized by the police, or by a corrupt system.”
Morisseau found that people would gather at her meetings and not only talk about the person who had been murdered or abused, but also about the injustices perpetrated against Black people. The conversations enabled people to be together and grieve together. “And I thought, well, if we can grieve as a group and talk like this, maybe we can heal as a group also. So that’s what it is. It’s “The Healing Wall.”
An overwhelming experience of collecting grief
Her goal was to place a ribbon on “The Healing Wall” to represent every Black person killed at the hands of police since the creation of modern policing shortly after the abolition of slavery in the United States through 1963. But data on police killings in the United States is difficult to come by because the federal government didn’t pass a law mandating reporting until after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (And as recently as 2019, the Department of Justice still struggled to systematically and effectively gather such information.)
Morisseau instead considered the number of recorded lynchings from about the same period in the U.S., as determined by the NAACP. That led her to require at least 4,000 ribbons be included in the piece. “The Healing Wall” is comprised of four quadrants, each containing 1,200 to 1,500 ribbons.
In addition to the ribbons, which also bear the names of individuals, the work includes portraits of African Americans and Afro Brazilians who were killed or brutalized by police, and various sayings or hashtags representing social justice movements aimed at ending police killings.
“I’ve included #SayHerName, #IAmTrayvon, #StopTheKillings, Black Lives Matter and 8:46, which is the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck. For me, it’s a moving piece. As I painted the portraits, I loved every single one of them,” said Morisseau. “You get to know a person when you’re painting them and loving their features. It was quite an experience.”
It was such an overwhelming experience that Morisseau took several months off to “air out and vent” from working on the piece. To date, it’s been a two-year work in progress.
“I didn’t work on it because it was hurtful,” she said. “But I look at it now and see the beauty of it. That was my goal. The piece not only discusses these people and gives us a place to grieve and heal from the ending to these people’s lives, but it really is very festive looking, making it a celebration of their lives. So, when I look at it that way, then it’s not hurtful for me to continue. I’m hoping one day I won’t have to add any more to it. But after this past summer, I’m going to just keep on adding as long as our people are meeting their demise in this manner.”
Art as practice and resistance
“The Listeners Three,” another of Morisseau’s pieces in the “Souls of Black Folk” exhibit, is both protest and a direct reflection of one of her more joyful experiences in the creation of “The Healing Wall.” It depicts three women she met one Noel Night at the Scarab Club. The women added ribbons to the artwork.
The illustration contains soil from Brazil that Morisseau collected while visiting a quilombo. Quilombos are communities that were established by escaped enslaved people in Brazil.
“One of the problems that Afro Brazilians have on these quilombos now is they’ve been there for 400 years and they own the property, but they can’t prove that they own the property because the government wants them to display land contracts and deeds and show an ownership lineage on paper,” Morisseau explains. “Many of the quilombos don’t have that. When they are not able to produce that, the government seizes the property. We’ve got a problem where there’s government seizure of the property of Afro Brazilians as well as that of indigenous people in Brazil.”
Morisseau drew connections between the Brazilian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the land ownership rights of quilombo communities to the lack of reparations for African Americans.
“Things were promised to us, like 40 acres and a mule. That never happened. And with the disenfranchisement of owning the land, generational wealth is not able to be built. So, I was looking at the land when I was in Brazil—and the soil is just beautiful. It’s a rich, red earth. And I harvested some of it and have been using it in my pieces.”
She said, “It’s a tribute to Brazil and the beauty of Brazil, and it’s also a vessel of resistance, that I can take this soil and make a thing of beauty with it, and talk about all of this with people, about how we weren’t able to own land and now, even though we do, we still have redlining and all of these things that keep us out of certain areas and keep us definitely in a lower income.”
‘The Listeners Three’
“The Listeners Three” is also an illustration inspired by Morisseau’s legacy as an artist and arts instructor. She was a middle- and high-school art teacher in Detroit Public Schools and owned and operated a dance company (Detroit City Dance Company and Detroit Dance Center) and studio for 15 years.
“It was Noel Night and these three ladies were so mesmerized and drawn in by what I was saying, and they were just beautiful to me,” said Morisseau. “I mean, they had been out partying and reveling and everything, but here they were so focused on me. So, I said I have to take a picture of you.”
“As one was searching on her phone [for a name to add to the wall], the other two were looking at me, and from what I know from education, there’s the visual learner, the audio learner and the tactile learner—all expressed right in front of me. So, in this exhibit, I have “The Healing Wall” piece and an image of these three ladies who participated in it, both in the same show. It’s special for me to be able to do that.”
The ‘Souls of Black Folk’ on view
“Souls of Black Folk” is a landmark exhibit for the Scarab Club. As Morisseau explains, the Club was built by artists for artists, but at the time of its founding in 1907, the only artists who could be members were white men. It is only in recent years that the Scarab Club’s board has become much more diverse, grown more socially conscious and decided to dedicate full exhibitions to specific ethnic or racial groups. This is the first show with works exclusively from African Americans.
“Our distant past was not always diverse, equitable or inclusive to African Americans,” Scarab Club Board President Mariuca Rofick said in a statement. “However, our present and future is painted with color—Black and brown that embraces diversity and inclusion in artistic expressions, thoughts and deeds.”
Originally slated to run from Feb. 5 through March 5, response to “Souls of Black Folk” has been so great that the show is extended through March 20. Alongside works by Morisseau, the exhibit features art from Cydney Camp, Rachel Elise Thomas, Carl Wilson, Sabrina Nelson, Phil Simpson and others.