Essay by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw

(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations is Michael Ray Charles’ project for the newly expanded and renovated Gordon-White Building at The University of Texas at Austin. The building is home to the various academic entities committed to the study of historically marginalized cultural and world histories, including the African and African Diaspora Studies Department, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, the Center for Mexican American Studies, and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. In making the sculpture, the artist, who taught at the university for twenty-one years until 2014, reflected on the challenges of minority communities in bringing their experiences from the neglected margins to recognition at the center of academic life. Through its presence in this space, the work engages directly with the difficulties that scholars of a broader and more inclusive American history, life, and culture have endured in order to pursue their intellectual interests. 

(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations is primarily made from crutches bundled in groups to create interconnected, star-shaped forms that hover in the building’s atrium. While familiar as medical devices commonly used to aid people who have been injured, in this context the crutches become complex symbols that engage issues of harmony and conflict. 

The location of the work within the Gordon-White Building is key to its meaning. The space of the atrium in which it hangs was created by connecting an original, neoclassical 1952 building with a new wing designed to accommodate several academic centers and departments. Viewing the space as a transition between the old guard and the new, both architectural and academic, Charles contributed to the renovation and expansion by selecting finishes such as a raw concrete floor and exposed ceilings to convey ideas of growth and evolution. The artist acknowledges that in any attempt to grow, whether architectural or intellectual, there may be wounds and complex historical perspectives with which each generation must engage. His careful architectural considerations within the Gordon-White atrium create an environment that becomes a part of the work. In this setting, (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations points to that which is known and unknown—the presence of the past within the current moment. 

Beyond responding to the architecture, the sculpture evokes varied associations through the star forms that are created by the clustered crutches. These symbols suggest the “Black Star” logo of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department, which in turn recalls the Black Star Shipping Line founded by the early twentieth-century visionary Marcus Garvey and the iconic Lone Star of the state of Texas. Further, each of the twenty-six stars corresponds to a different letter of the alphabet, pointing to the crucial role that language, the word, and literature have played in the history of African American culture and activism. Language and its power were key to the genesis of Black studies departments around the nation, beginning with the first proposal for such a department at San Francisco State University in 1968, just a year after Charles’ birth. As the literary historian and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted in a celebrated New York Times editorial, in order to have Black studies within the academy, the establishment of an African American literary canon during the 1970s and ‘80s was vital. Such programs achieved success in part by excavating archives and republishing numerous out-of-print narratives by formerly enslaved people, works of fiction by their descendants, and volumes of poetry. All of them helped established area-specific fields of study within the pre-existing disciplines of English and comparative literature.

Despite facing many challenges since its founding, the university’s African and African Diaspora Studies Department has become one of the top of its kind in the United States. It had modest beginnings that eventually produced a series of ambitious goals resulting in important achievements, such as establishing a nationally ranked PhD program 2009. Charles credits the department’s success to the vision of its chair, Dr. Edmund T. Gordon, as well as its dedicated faculty and affiliates. In light of this institutional history, Charles sees the artistic transformation of the crutches as underscoring the African and African Diaspora Studies Department’s resourcefulness and highlighting the ability of its faculty to “make-do” and “make better.”

Michael Ray Charles was born in 1967, just as the non-violent Civil Rights Movement was giving way to the rise of the Black Power Movement, signaling a shift in how many African Americans saw themselves within the unequal structures of the white male-dominated power that controlled the country’s economic and political engines. While many discussions of the artist’s work have focused on his arresting paintings that include stereotypically racist representations of black bodies, less has been written about his overarching interest in the material objects he collects and studies. They include early American chromolithography, nineteenth-century sheet music, and American and European advertisements from the late nineteenth century to the present that document the evolution of black representation within a global consumer culture.

Charles’ practice of challenging conventions with the use of found materials is not unlike that of the twentieth-century Dadaist and conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp whose influential work, Fountain, was a urinal he had purchased from a local plumbing store and provocatively entered into an art exhibition in 1917. Like Duchamp, Charles looks to the evolving nature of language and material objects to inform his work. The artifacts he collects are available in their original forms and in reproduction at antique shops and from dealers; amidst the bric-a-brac of flea markets, swap meets, and yard and garage sales; through myriad online auction and commerce sites such as EBay; and at novelty stores around the world. His interest in material manifestations of racism extends into his practice as an artist and professor of art. “The source of my work comes from my love for information, sociology and creative culture… art, architecture, music, philosophy, language, its construction, application and evolution,” explains Charles. “Perhaps and most importantly, conceptual and representational applications of power throughout visual cultures past and present are amongst my most significant triggers of creative inspiration.” Like Duchamp’s Fountain, which re-imagined a pissoir as an art object through the act of nomination, the linear, triangulating shape of the crutches is a readymade element through which a formal transformation can take place in a new configuration. By joining the crutches at their tops, Charles renders them useless as supports while suggesting mobility as they adopt the form of a star or a wheel. Newly transformed, these readymade elements take on artistic lives in which they signify, or refer to allegorically, other cultural forms and symbols.

Today, with the Gordon-White Building as a permanent home, the intellectual communities of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, the Center for Mexican American Studies, and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies are able to begin their next phases of forward movement. The metaphorical crutches that supported these communities for so long, now grouped together and bound at a common core, have been turned into a swirling mass of constellations that will propel them through the coming century. In this way, Charles’ sculpture may be viewed as symbolizing the continued progress made by all cultural studies departments within the academy, as well as those who struggle to achieve greatness in the face of great odds. Thus, (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations references the perpetual state of transition in which these fields often find themselves, and the transformative impact that area studies faculty frequently have in the intellectual lives of the students who take their courses, the scholarship they produce, and the larger public sphere in which their members share and develop their work. Fittingly, Michael Ray Charles stated that his goal for the piece was to activate the atrium and instill thoughts of institutional progress and cultural transformation among the students, faculty, and community members who come together within this dynamic space.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is an Associate Professor of History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written and lectured extensively on race, gender, sexuality, and class in art of the United States and the “New World.” She is also an independent curator and the Visual Arts Editor of Transition, a leading publication focusing on black life around the world.