On June 13, 2017, Mellon Collections Curator Rebecca McNamara and Dayton Director Ian Berry interviewed Willie Cole about his sculpture To get to the other side, which is displayed at the Tang for the first time in the exhibition Other Side: Art, Object, Self.
The video above shows Cole talking about his work. A longer version of the interview is below.
You first created To get to the other side in 2001 in response to a commission from the Bronx Museum. Can you talk about when and why you initially made this piece?
I went to Brazil, I think in 2000, and in Brazil, I got a big dose of Candomblé, which is kind of the Brazilian version of Ifá, from the Yoruba traditions. I was very moved by that. I had been reading about the Yoruba traditions for many years. My daughter’s mother was Yoruba. We had many conversations, and I’m experiencing it as an outsider, like an investigator, and then I went to Brazil and saw that it was part of their daily life. Those kinds of symbols and meanings were really present with me. A few years before, I read a book called Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World, and it lists the attributes of every orisha. Elegba was the one that I felt I had the greatest connection to, the presenter of choices.
Why lawn jockeys? What does the lawn jockey mean to you?
The symbol of the lawn jockey is perceived as negative. But in this piece, I’ve turned it into a symbol of power by placing it in the position of power, as a member of a chess team, but also giving it the embellishments of spiritual icons from African traditions. What it means to me, personally, before it’s embellished, is just a symbol of the difficulties that this country’s had with race. It’s not a personal symbol of present racism. It’s a redefining of a negative symbol, giving new meaning to something old.
In Brazil and in Cuba, all the so-called orishas or black gods have European or Western counterparts. The Virgin Mary might be Yemanjá in Brazil. Every god has a counterpart. The lawn jockey is a stand-in for Elegba, the god at the crossroads, the presenter of choices. His symbolism might be the doorway, the cross, the colors red and black; the so-called traditionally painted lawn jockey has those same symbols. You see a lawn jockey standing at the top of the driveway, where the road goes across, or by the front door. It just goes on and on and on.
In the book The Divine Horseman, the author uses the words of the Haitians who are involved in voodoo ceremonies. In the ceremony, if a person becomes possessed by a god, they say the person’s being ridden by the gods, that the gods are the divine horsemen, and the people who are worshipping, who may become possessed, are the horses. So that was the real kickoff for me with the lawn jockey, because in the ceremonies, you have to present your first offering to Elegba. If that offering’s accepted, then Elegba opens the door for you to get to the next level. The jockey wants to ride the horse, but the jockey boy [who is represented in the lawn statues] has to bring it to him. So it became almost the same thing.
You mentioned how the black lawn jockey, just in itself, has these racial and racist undercurrents. For the lawn jockey that’s standing in for a Yoruba god, what sort of message or energy do you see that as transferring?
With a lot of African art, you don’t get it, but you feel it. You can go into a gallery of African art and stand between two Nkisi and get nervous because you can feel the power. You don’t know what it means, but you can feel it. I would be very pleased if people don’t understand what my piece means, but they feel something, because it’s all about feeling and spirit.
The sculpture is called To get to the other side. What side are the figures on? What side are they trying to reach?
I am a big fan of double entendre and double meaning. I love that stuff. Why’d the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. What is the most sacrificed animal in certain rituals? The chicken. I thought that was amazing. So I put those two together. The first offering will go to Elegba. That pawn could be carrying a chicken to the other side. Getting to the other side means crossing the plane from our everyday life to a more spiritual plane. In these traditions, sometimes that’s done through sacrifice. In Christian tradition, it’s done through warfare. They both shed blood. To get to the other side is a battle field.
When you come to a town like Saratoga, and you take the drive from downtown to the college, and you pass by dozens of lawn jockeys, do you imagine who’s living in those houses? What do you think about what that might mean? Does that have meaning?
It means big fans of horse racing, because I know that’s where I am. I don’t think that there are racial indications in it at all, but I wonder if the people who own the jockeys know the history of the jockey in that way, because I haven’t seen a black-faced jockey here yet. So I think it’s horse racing. But to me, it’s also the persistence of particular kinds of symbols or belief systems, how things can be hidden in other things.
Sometimes I find that there are things that people do and say that they don’t really know the deeper history or meaning of. In those situations, the meaning is winning the war, if that makes sense. The color black might be associated with death, and suddenly we’re all wearing black, but we’re not thinking about death. Symbolically we’re still advertising those old meanings. As in my piece, we’re recontextualizing it to fit in a more contemporary environment, but those old meanings still have relevance. It’s only through time that they appear to be different. But at some level, there’s only now, and everything is compressed. The past, present, and future is all happening at the same time. So even though we think that we’re advertising “cool,” we’re still advertising “death.”
So if you paint a black lawn jockey’s face lighter, isn’t there still black skin under that?
No, they’re just solid cement until the maker decides on a color. The idea of black skin exists because of the history of the jockey statue in this country. To me, on a spiritual plane, everything happens at once. So even though you don’t know that your jockey is linked to a history of the past, that moment in time, it’s all piled up together. To me, everything is stacked up, the past, the present, and the future. You see a lawn jockey. In this moment, he has a white face. Yes, he’s still a lawn jockey, and his negative energy still exists. It’s just that you don’t have the awareness, so you don’t experience it directly on your plane of existence, but it’s still there. Me, knowing where I am and knowing who I am, I see the lawn jockey, and, yes, I know the negative symbol, but I know where I am. I know I’m in this moment, in a town where people are into horse races. So that meaning rises to the top.
Your work is often cited in conversations about race and to reflect or agitate about experiences that other people, besides you, are having now. How do you feel about your work in that catalytic place?
I’m glad just to be working and to be seen and to be talked about. So I don’t mind that, negative or positive. My work is only about race because you choose to see it that way. I draw a picture. I draw a black person. I’m not talking about race. I’m just drawing a person. I’m just doing my humanness, being a human being, just drawing, making sculpture for you, the viewer, to see, to interpret, to experience, and hopefully to grow from.
What’s the difference between art and music?
Just the medium is different. The real gift, so-called gift, is creativity, and you can apply it to anything you want.
What is creativity?
What would Sun Ra say? I think creativity is more like a direct connection to the source of all things, and everybody has it. You think of the faculties of the mind. If you mix perception, reasoning, imagination, memory, and will, when all those are added together, it’s creativity. Being open to allow something to enter and grow. But creativity, art, and music, it’s the same thing. A lot of musicians are artists. Sylvester Stallone is a painter. Bob Dylan is a painter. Miles Davis is a painter. Terry Adkins is a jazz musician. It’s the same energy, just applied through different medium. You can get a direct hit, like a main line, or you can take a pill. What I like about music is that I think music is more main line.
I think jazz is the highest calling in all the creative acts because it is so immediate. That’s why my art is play, because I want to be more like John Coltrane. When I was an illustrator, it was not like jazz. It required somebody giving me a concept. It required research. It required sketches and all that stuff. But with my sculpture, it’s just play. It’s like, now is the time. I had a friend who was a jazz musician. He told me that improvisation was the reordering of learned information. That’s what I’m doing here. I’ve learned about the lawn jockey already. I’ve learned about African religion already. So now let’s play with all these things and see what happens. Don’t sit down and contemplate it and make it heavy. Just jump into the “do” stage of it all, and see what song comes out.