Billy Gerard Frank, “Second Eulogy: Mind The Gap (The Sacrifice. NO.2),” 2019. Image courtesy of Billy Gerard Frank/Elizabeth Moss Galleries

Two very emotional shows – “Eulogies,” a multimedia installation by Billy Gerard Frank at Moss Galleries Portland (through Aug. 13) and “Daniel Minter: A Other Crossing” at Dowling Walsh in Rockland (through Aug. 27) – explore many aspects of the African diasporic experience. Be forewarned: They are important shows with important messages and are also likely to stir feelings of anger, sorrow, even revulsion.

Billy Gerard Frank is a New York-based multimedia artist with ties to Maine (he was studio assistant to New York and Maine painter John Hultberg for years and spent several summers on Monhegan Island). He is of Grenadian descent and represented the island twice at the Venice Biennale (2019 and this year). This is his first show in Maine, and it packs a wallop.

The centerpiece is a 40-minute video (“2nd Eulogy: Mind the Gap”), which mixes fiction with Frank’s own personal memories of growing up gay in Grenada as the child of a white Scottish mother and a Black Grenadian father. “Apart from telling the story of my father’s life, I wanted to explore personal experiences of growing up as a gay teenager in Grenada,” reads Frank’s statement, “the ridicule; the sexual molestation; the trauma.”

More expansively, however, the film explores “the emotional gulf (the gap) that is the spine of these personal and collective narratives of loss, grief, displacement, and longing – the narratives of diasporas and exile experience.” In this way, Frank weaves a dense tale about the tragic legacy of colonialism, plumbing the depths of its depredations and cruelties to, in a sense, explicate how colonialism’s inhumanities – and the conflicted relational landscape they left in their wake – are at least partly responsible for the chasm between father and son (as well as other shattered bonds of diasporic peoples).

Whatever connection existed between his mother and father has long been broken when the film begins. Antoinette is lonely from the affection her husband, Nelson, withholds, and of which he also deprives their son, James. Mother and son bond in their shared alienation, not always appropriately; James is not just Antoinette’s offspring, but also her “girlfriend,” emotional (not sexual) lover and confidante.

Frank quotes Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa” (published in 1962): “I who am poisoned with the blood of both,/Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” It describes James’ dilemma, but also, in Walcott references, British colonialism in Africa. (Elsewhere, Frank also quotes V.S. Naipaul, another acute observer of colonialism’s devastations.)

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There is a scene that painfully illustrates the barrenness of this dysfunctional triad, when James and Antoinette are enjoying tea and confidences in the garden. Nelson looks at them both with unvarnished antipathy, walks right past them and sits alone, smoking on a porch, silent and scowling. His callousness is chilling.

Billy Gerard Frank, “Second Eulogy: Mind The Gap (Towards A Destiny. NO.3),” 2019 Image courtesy of Billy Gerard Frank/Elizabeth Moss Galleries

At another point, La Diablesse (or Ladjablès), a mysterious demon figure from Caribbean folklore, leads James into a ceremony worshipping the powerful and violent Yoruba orisha, Shango. There, he is molested by a man participating in the ritual. This scene illustrates Frank’s subtle layering of memory within larger themes of the diaspora.

This is not a literal recreation of Frank’s own molestation, but he relates it through the lens of a Yoruban religion that was practiced among Africans brought to the Caribbean in the Atlantic slave trade. Frank is not content to depict this human commerce as simply between Black and white people. It was a far more complicated phenomenon in which some Africans themselves were complicit. The veneration of the war-mongering Shango had its very shadowy side, as we see in the harrowing climax of the film, when Nelson forces James into a Shango ritual and baptism involving hot coals and whipping with palm fronds soaked in goat’s blood, the aim being to exorcise the boy of his homosexuality.

The video, which Frank wrote and directed, is hard to watch. Film stills surround the gallery, along with a sculpture of a singed church prayer book and a collage canvas including a poignant letter he wrote to his father before his death. At the base of the latter is a suitcase containing other letters viewers are encouraged to peruse. It is a searing experience, and one that will profoundly affect you for weeks, maybe lifetimes, to come.

Daniel Minter, “A Quiet Reach #2,” 2021, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 20″ Image courtesy of Dowling Walsh

“Daniel Minter: A Other Crossing,” on which Dowling Walsh collaborated with Minter’s Portland gallery, Greenhut, focuses mainly on a historical crime so appallingly racist that it was not widely known, much less acknowledged, for a century after it was perpetrated. That was the forced removal of an entire mixed-race community from the island of Malaga, off the coast of Phippsburg, in 1911.

Until then, the inhabitants had enjoyed a thriving community of fishing, trade and laundering for local resorts, and some of its denizens also worked at those resorts. They had a profound, one could say even mystical, connection to sea, land and sky, and lived peaceably. But in the wake of Jim Crow laws and Francis Galton’s theory of eugenics (the contorted, scientifically unsubstantiated bastard child of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution), then-Maine Gov. Frederick Plaisted ordered the removal of every member of the community. He provided no support for their relocation and even had graves dug up and re-interred in Pownal to warn against any thought of return.

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A “public” apology was finally issued in 2010, but without informing the descendants of these maligned families who, prior to their eviction, were accused in the local papers of engaging in immoral and deviant acts and forcing children with horns to live in tunnels. Minter has been creating works about the incident for years, as has Theaster Gates, who used it as a point of departure for “Amalgam,” a project that was exhibited at the Tate Museum in London in 2019-2020.

Over the years, Minter has developed a personal iconography to narrate the story of Malaga. The paintings are replete with symbolism. Very present in several are boats, which hang at the top of the canvas over the heads of his subjects. This obviously references the Middle Passage, the involuntary capture, transport and enslavement of Africans across the Atlantic. But it also represents the ramifications of this unholy predation, which persist today, affecting the entire global community. It is a legacy that is slowly beginning to dawn on white people, but has been apparent to people of color for centuries.

The appearance of calipers floating in the middle of the paintings, also above the heads of his subjects, symbolizes the removal of brown and Black people from their lands and lifestyles. Indeed, they are ominous presences, poised over his characters, ready to pluck them from their native surroundings and insert them into unjust servitude.

The attire of his characters is comprised of patterns that emphasize their connections to the natural elements: fish, birds, tortoises, vegetation, boats and so on. There are also buttons. Specifically, they refer to the women who laundered for the local resorts, who would wash clothes on the shore. To this day, the ebb and flow of the sea uncovers beads on the Malaga beach.

Daniel Minter, “A Quiet Reach #8,” 2021, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 12″ Image courtesy of Dowling Walsh

At a deeper level, however, buttons represent connection, an object that has been touched by both wearer and washer, thus uniting them. I would also venture to say that they can be metaphors for what binds community – generations of the Malaga themselves, but also the human community to those people and, ultimately, to all sentient beings.

The mixed-race heritage of Malaga Island is depicted in paintings such as “A Quiet Reach #8,” where a central figure’s complexion transitions from brown to white. This is one of my favorite paintings in the show because of its sense of nature-centered mysticism and timelessness. It has a melancholy that is palpable, yet a power and transcendence that also speak of resilience and the eternal preciousness of the human spirit.

There are also mixed-media works that complement these paintings, particularly “Governor’s Tea,” its cracked and strewn teacups representing the broken promises of Gov. Plaisted’s visit, where he pledged not to remove residents. Sadly, by now it is a familiar tale.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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