by Anthony Suber
“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be”. Those words, conjured by the great James Baldwin are a lintel in the framework of the art of Letitia Huckaby. Freedom, light, history, color, race, sex, and the divine are all present in the body of work that was presented in Bayou Baroque. The show, aptly titled, Bayou Baroque opened at Art League Houston in late July of this summer. This collection of multi-layered portals, peered into the world of the nuns at the Sisters of the Holy Family Mother House in New Orleans, Louisiana.
To be transparent, I cannot properly contextualize my experience of the entirety of the work that I saw at the Bayou Baroque exhibit without first taking a brief deviation to the time when I was first formally met with the aesthetic of Letitia Huckaby’s craft. My initial exposure to Letitia Huckaby’s work occurred in a place that I least expected, and at a time I probably most needed it. During the late Fall of 2014 I traveled with a small group to the Texas Hill Country. We were attending a gathering of innovators and spirit minded creators and leaders from the city of Houston. After being on the campus of Laity Lodge for an afternoon, out of curiosity, I decided to venture down the hill and along the river to the fine arts center. This facility also houses the campus’ informal gallery space. It was then that I encountered the visual construction of the paintings that were on display. This work was, without a doubt, some of the most impactful portraiture that I had seen in some time. Moving from pen and pencil to brush, this work embodied much of the history that seemed to teem from the faces that were being illustrated. After investigating the work for quite some time, I read the statement and information to discover none other than Sedrick Huckaby had illuminated the space. Moving further into the intimate space, I saw an amazing mixed media sculpture that was a patchwork of fibers, textures, and elaborate visual relationships. The work embodied the moment of time when both men and women dressed with great detail regardless of class, creed, or background. Freedom was all over this work. The visual aesthetic of Letitia Huckaby was exciting and new, yet old and sobering all at the same time. The dialogue between the Huckaby’s works was a liberating one and offered a level of mystical harmony that was refreshing. I studied the installation for the remainder of my stay on that campus and tried my best to deconstruct it, visually, historically and conceptually.
When I first encountered the Bayou Baroque series, I admittedly did not connect the work that had impacted me in that space in Leakey, Texas with the work of Letitia Huckaby. Full of spiritual undertones, Bayou Baroque was without a doubt a powerful and necessary statement about our culture in general. I find personal connection to work that has a historical scope and this series is steeped in that commodity. These mixed media photographs, were an anthropological study of this group of nuns, who have dedicated their lives to the service of the elderly, the poor and the youth. Their foundress Henrietta Delille, chose to create freedom from a pre-existing system where women of color became the concubines of wealthy white men.
Freedom was on the faces of these women. Looking at the works on the walls of the space, Letitia successfully captured the essence of the nuns whose likenesses were forever memorialized on these constructions of cotton fiber and ink. Each piece was amazing for it’s use of photographic chiaroscuro. At times, her compositions masterfully violated new conventional norms with the placement of the subject, yet still correlated with old world religious portraiture. One of the most powerful images in this series was the image entitled Sister Canice and Sister Canisius. At first glance, it is clear that these two individuals are connected in a way much deeper than the path they have chosen to take in service. The two figures portrayed in the piece were not only sisters of this order of nuns, but also, to my understanding, sisters in blood relation. Their story was undergirded by the presence of their family members at the opening. It was the type of living historical connection that can add a unique layer to an already dense and rich series.
I connected with a trio of impactful works, a cluster of images entitled, Sister Mary, Sister Sarah, and Sister Jean, respectively. Perhaps, as with the case of the Sister Canice and Sister Canisius composition, I was drawn to the symbiosis of the two facing figures, Sister Mary and Sister Jean with the centralized, Sister Sarah. I had no confirmation of the reasoning behind the juxtaposition of these pieces, or even if these figures shared a personal connection. This grouping of works reminded me of Renaissance style altarpieces (polyptychs), designed to narrate a greater story for the viewer. The beautiful silhouettes illustrated by Sister Mary, and Sister Jean also reminded me of the idea of veiled images as seen through drying sheets on a sunny day. This play on familiar imagery flooded my mind with all kinds of possible symbolic meanings and connections. In comparison, the centralized component of this grouping is a wonderful play of contrast, which gives an almost otherworldliness to the figure sitting with hands clasped. I began asking myself if this approach was an intentional nod to the practice of old style painters who created intuitive emphasis on not just the subject but the potential spiritual significance through lighting. How had freedom guided their stories to this static moment in time?
As with every act of artistic articulation, there is a conversion that happens on both sides of the equation. The Letitia Huckaby drew inspiration from the work of the old masters for this series, perhaps transcending the reliable prescriptions for portraiture. I unearthed peace and stillness buried in my own experience of this work. The collaborative effort between the subjects in the artist’s work and the artist herself is one of the most beautiful results I have seen in quite sometime.
Texas native Anthony Suber is a multidisciplinary artist, art historian, and educator working and living in the South. His work and writing focus primarily on the relationships between antiquated culture and conversations of ethnic origin. Suber is an alumni of The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and The University of Houston.