More than he is a painter or a sculptor, Daniel Minter is a storyteller, and at no time has he told his story more clearly, forcefully and thoughtfully than in his installation, “A Distant Holla,” that is part of the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial.

The installation was inspired by a dream Minter experienced in the 1980s, when he lived in Atlanta. The artist, who now lives in Portland, revisits the dream in “A Distant Holla,” a deeply spiritual piece of art that tells Minter’s personal story as well as an overarching narrative of the black experience in America. It’s the second time he’s shown an iteration of this piece in Maine. He introduced it in spring 2016 at the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, in a community exhibition with other artists of color from Maine. He has since shown a version of it in New Orleans, as well.

It’s become the most talked-about piece in the biennial, which is on view through June 3. “A Distant Holla” dominates the gallery, filling a wall and demanding attention. To understand the piece – to unearth its details and discover its layers – one must spend time reading it, almost like a book. It’s psychologically heavy and takes time to process.

“You’re not supposed to have a favorite in a group show. Like parents, you are not allowed to have a favorite child,” said biennial curator Nat May. “I don’t want to say that Daniel’s is my favorite piece in the biennial, but I am so pleased it is centered in the show, and it warrants being at the center of the conversation of what the show is all about.”

The show is about diversity, inclusion and the zeitgeist of America circa 2018, which translates into tension, turmoil and tumult for those on the losing side of oppression. Minter, who is African-American, makes art that is spiritual and symbolic, reflective of his community in Maine and the echoes of his personal and wider cultural past.

Daniel Minter’s installation at the Portland Museum of Art, “A Distant Holla,” is getting a lot of attention. It’s a series of small pieces that tell a narrative of slavery and Minter’s personal African-American experience. Top, the entire width of the piece. Below, a detail from the first section, which includes boxes, vessels and containers that represent places of safekeeping. Staff photos by Ben McCanna

Born in Georgia, Minter lived in Chicago, Seattle and Brooklyn before moving to Maine in 2003. He was the visionary behind the Portland Freedom Trail, teaches at Maine College of Art and is active in the Ashley Bryan Center and the Illustration Institute. He’s illustrated nearly a dozen children’s books and twice created Kwanzaa stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.

But more than any or all of those things, “A Distant Holla” represents what Minter is about as an artist and a human being. The installation is dense with cultural iconography that represents the complex heritage of the American South of his youth, which he connects to broader rituals and traditions within the African diaspora.

“The whole idea of the piece comes from myself trying to tell a story that goes back, back, back into time, and that also goes forward into the future,” Minter said. “It comes from a dream that I have been trying to put into images, and every image I have here has some aspect of the dream in it. It’s about traveling through materials, traveling through the earth, traveling through dirt, traveling through stone.”

The piece consists of dozens of paintings, assemblages, collages and carvings, grouped together in a series of rough wooden pallets that hang flat on the wall, side by side, and can be read like a book, left to right. Minter has manipulated some of the pallets to make them look like houses. His paintings are figurative and saintly, and speak to legacy and ancestry.

Each section can been seen as a chapter, shadowing what comes before and what follows. Here’s how it reads:

CHAPTER 1

Minter’s story begins with a nursery rhyme, represented by a small painting of a little red rooster that Minter tucks in the far left corner of the long, horizontal installation. Abutting the painting of a rooster is a painted image of a man, perhaps flying aloft while clutching a handful of feathers. “It’s from a rhyme that my mother and father taught me: ‘Good morning captain rooster, I’ve come to borrow your wings, to fly across the ocean, to hear Miss Lucy sing,’ ” Minter explains. “It’s just a children’s rhyme, but it’s also about finding your way back to Africa. It’s about accessing all the energies that we still have and may not even know that we have or may not recognize them for what they are.”

A detail of the first section of ‘A Distant Holla’

The rooster image is painted on a three-dimensional block, which is hollowed out. Inside the hollowed part are cigars, which Minter placed there as an offering.

This section also includes a carved box, the first in a recurring motif throughout the piece. On the lid, which is woven shut with brown string, Minter has carved into place four small glass jars in a cross-like pattern. Below the cross is another tiny door, with a small lock. The box is surrounded by painted and carved images of African-American men and women. The boxes, vessels and containers represent places of safekeeping.

“Ever since we have been here, everything that we have was meant to be taken, even our bodies,” Minter said. “To have places to keep things, to hold things, that’s how we survive. We need these places to keep the things that should be kept.”

Things like energy and ideas – and a small jar of water that represents cleansing, life and Yemoja, the water goddess. This piece exudes spiritual energy.

CHAPTER 2

The water theme repeats in the next pallet, which speaks about fertility and life. The centerpiece in this section is a carved box, covered with a fabric that’s painted in shades of red and with a hollowed opening, under which Minter has painted a fish. Surrounding the opening are four nuts that he has wrapped with twine. There are two paintings with carved openings, also holding jars of water, and there’s a painting of a man kneeling, his head bowed.

The hollowed box represents a womb, the nuts are seeds and the fish is a symbol of life. A fish surfaced in Minter’s dream, which foretold of a pregnancy and the continuation of a family legacy.

The rooster motif repeats itself in the patterns that Minter uses to decorate one of his figures.

CHAPTER 3

The third section is the centerpiece of “A Distant Holla,” and one that has garnered considerable discussion. The individual pieces of art in this section are not contained in a pallet, but hang from or adorn a round wooden board that appears to be the top of a barrel. From it hang worn hand tools used for stone carving and four brooms. There are many other items here as well, mostly wooden carvings of human and animal figures, including another fish and two other boxes whose doors are either locked or propped open.

“This piece is about power, not servitude,” Minter said, correcting a misperception. “This is about harnessing your power.”

The genesis of this piece was an artist residency Minter experienced while living in Seattle. A stone-cutter left his home and studio to other artists after he died. Minter helped clean the studio, which is where he found the brooms and tools for this piece. “In the pile of dust I found these tools, and I couldn’t throw them away. They held too much power, and too much energy had been placed into them over the years.” The tools, he said, were made for creating things, and should be honored. And the brooms – a recurring theme throughout his work – are symbols of cleanliness and order, and represent a rite of passage and ceremony in African-American culture. He turned each into a talisman by carving and painting it.

The open door, he added, represents a path forward. “By opening his studio, the stone-cutter was opening a pathway for other artists,” Minter said.

CHAPTER 4

The next section is all about the power of women, and it consists mostly of paintings of women from Minter’s life. There also is another carved, lashed wooden box, adorned with fishes, a rooster and trees. The paintings are filled with recurring symbols of birds, turtles and flowing flora.

“This is about going back across the ocean, going back to mother and the energy of mothers,” Minter said. “These are all mothers and daughters and sisters, and the energy you get from mothers and daughters and sisters. I use a lot of figures in my work, and a lot of times the female figures will have a male energy to them, and people will get confused. I am totally fine with that, because that’s the kind of women I grew up with.”

CHAPTER 5

Jutting out near the far end of the installation is a panel that stands perpendicular, signaling a hinged door. It’s a stand-alone piece that Minter calls “Judgment House,” and it’s a painting of a well-dressed black man with a hole where his heart should be, and it’s painted on a panel shaped to look like a house. Two wires that run down the length of the figure suggest guitar strings, or the blues.

The fifth section of ‘A Distant Holla’ stands out from the wall, perpendicular to the rest of the installation, representing a hinged door.

Near the bottom of the piece, Minter has bound in cloth and hung a handful of hammers.

It’s about facing a judgment, and decisions people must make when encountering a closed door, to walk through or turn away. The hammers represent tools of oppression. “This is about all the things that have been inflicted upon us, and realizing that we are not the ones who need to be healed,” Minter said. “Just because we are affected by what the hammer does, that does not mean we are the ones who are damaged.”

CHAPTER 6

The final section of Minter’s piece is about weight and men. Like the rooster and the vessels, a recurring motif in “A Distant Holla” is the boat, which represents the passage across the oceans that slaves endured when they were shipped to America to be sold. Minter often places his boats above the people, symbolizing a crushing, stifling weight.

In the last section of ‘A Distant Holla,’ Minter places a boat above a person, symbolizing the crushing weight of slave ships.

To further accent that weight, Minter has centered a cutout of a boat on the wall over the entire piece. On shelves within the boat’s hold, he places tin cans. And in some of the tin cans are wooden carvings of black men, the slaves who were packed in those boats like sardines. The tin cans also represent modern-day jail cells, where many black men are destined to spend their lives.

The boat and the men trapped within it read like a symbolic epilogue, wrapping up Minter’s story with the burden of slavery and of jail.

“There is always this weight on us, and the boat is a weight you cannot escape. It’s colonization, and everything is viewed through that lens – the difficulty of escaping it and almost the impossibility of escaping it,” he said. “You can pretend it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if you know it’s there. It doesn’t matter if you acknowledge it. The weight is always there. In some form, you’re always going to carry it.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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