The dance performance, to take place in the gallery where Edmondson’s pieces are displayed, is entitled Returning to Before, and it is choreographed by Brendan Fernandes, an artist and performer known for bringing movement into galleries in order to explore power structures. In this case, he is exploring what the museum’s power has kept outside the gallery—namely, the spiritual nature of Edmondson’s work. Entitled “William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision,” the show is in itself powerful, first of all, for all the emotion that Edmondson’s supple rock sculptures contain: small pieces that are as charming as they are smart and feel as if they have been collected from a disassembled medieval cathedral, though in this case the spiritual space from which the pieces might have been transferred would be neither a cathedral nor European. In fact, the Barnes curators offer a story about Edmondson that helps us see how diasporic and marginalized communities speak to each other, often in a language indiscernible by the world within which they work to survive.
Edmondson began sculpting around 1931. He had worked on a railroad until suffering an injury, then became an orderly at a Nashville women’s hospital. He was born around 1874 to formerly enslaved parents on a Tennessee plantation where it is thought that he cared for livestock. The story that he told then (according to the mostly white reporters who took it down at the time) was that he had received a message from the divine to make a grave marker. “Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me,” he told Time, yet the newsmagazine made him sound less like Picasso, more like a sweet old man.
One of Edmondson’s earliest pieces, a tombstone for a woman named Bernice Williams, is a lamb chiseled out of rough stone, likely around the time the women’s hospital closed. Using rocks discarded by the Nashville roads department, he carved numerous animals, as well as human figures and figures somewhere in between: doves, owls, a preacher, a couple posed with Egyptian pyramids. (In-person visitors to the Barnes can see what at-home and online viewers maybe cannot: they are arm in arm from the rear view, a hidden and tactile closeness.) Edmondson sculpts Jesus, as well as boxer Joe Louis, who in 1937 had just won a world championship. Or, it is likely Joe Louis. The titles weren’t necessarily written by Edmondson, but as the first Black world heavyweight champion, victorious during Jim Crow, Jackson was a 20th-century embodiment of hope and salvation against the odds, fighting for way more than a title and a purse. And despite MOMA’s description of Edmondson as an idiot savant, with no notion of an outside world, one sculpture, a male nude, was commissioned by his friend Sidney Mttron Hirsch, described in the catalog as “a white, Jewish intellectual and openly gay man who had worked as an artist’s model in Paris and who had a special interest in ancient religions and languages…” “We don’t want Edmondson to seem like he’s working on a vacuum,” said James Claiborne, the outgoing Barnes curator of public programs, on a tour of the show. (Claiborne recently moved to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, in Detroit.)