BALTIMORE — Why are significant female artists described as “seminal,” as if crediting sperm to the most powerful creative women is our highest compliment? Lauren Frances Adams’s newest solo exhibition, Germinal, at Maryland Institute College of Art, offers a new superlative that references female power on female terms. Taking things a step further, Adams offers three bodies of work that celebrate black female exceptionalism and expose the supporting roles of white women in US Confederate history and propaganda, offering a multifaceted site-specific, visual history lesson centered in Baltimore.
What’s most unexpected about an art show exploring Confederate monuments, intersectional feminism, and racist propaganda is how weirdly comforting and pleasing to the eye it all is. Adams, a MICA painting professor and a Southern white woman, has long addressed US issues of racism and unfair labor practices in her work, but it is her penchant for layering dense historic research into charming decorative patterns that grants her work its power. Under Adams’s hand, colonial wallpaper or abolitionist quilt patterns act as anchors for didactic narratives, presenting first a nostalgic, collective mirror while rage simmers just beneath the surface.
Filling one wall with a hive-like wallpaper pattern, “No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (2018) draws you in from a distance and rewards up close with intricately painted details and a lesson in black female history. The installation is ongoing, meaning the artist will each day add new portraits of black female activists from the 18th through 20th centuries, painted on individual oyster shells. The oysters, all Choptank Sweets, reference Harriet Tubman, who was owned as a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, near the Choptank River, and the wallpaper pattern is actually an image of a knife and fork taken from Tubman’s household, the originals now on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Using Tubman as a base for this installation, and the “Oyster knife” title (a quote from a 1928 Zora Neale Hurston essay) Adams constructs a web of black female excellence one portrait at a time. It’s an inclusive space where Ma Rainey, Shirley Chisholm, bell hooks, Bree Newsome, Josephine Baker, and many others come together to fill in the blanks that plague most history books and cultural canons. The background pattern is cohesive and visually compelling from a distance, and each shell is unique and warm, each portrait amended with added handwritten text, inviting motivated viewers to learn more.
Across the gallery, a series of six medium-sized paintings balance out this exhibition. Each brims with a collage of seemingly unrelated images, where amiable design elements such as antique lace and quilt patterns act as a host structure for the artist’s research. Viewed as a group, the paintings present conflicted narratives around specific Confederate monuments: ahistorical myths of whiteness and support for white supremacy contrasted with images of art made by black artists in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This body of work was inspired by the removal of four Confederate monuments in Baltimore the night of August 15, 2017 — a move lauded in newspapers across the country, but mostly without contextual information, such as when these monuments were built, who paid for them and why. These questions motivated Adams to begin research on the topic, which led her to the Daughters of the Confederacy (an active group of powerful women in Baltimore who sponsored most of the monuments) and ended at MICA, the hosting institution whose own professor, J. Maxwell Miller, taught there over 100 years ago and sculpted the Confederate Women’s Monument, one of four recently removed by the mayor.
In the painting “Confederate Women’s Monument,” (2018) she renders part of Joshua Johnson’s 1805 painting “Edward and Sarah Rutter,” but as a laser-cut silhouette, and sticks it atop the surface of the painting. Adams then painted that shape to resemble locally mined marble which is ubiquitously used as stone steps in older row houses in Baltimore. Layered underneath this imagery on the canvas, a Baltimore album quilt pattern from 1851 plays host to several small vignettes, images embedded into circular areas of the pattern, as if a part of it. These pictures come from diverse sources such as Harper’s Weekly illustrations from 1961 depicting the Brown Veil Club, who sewed Confederate soldier uniforms in Baltimore, and “Charles Calvert and his slave,” a 1761 painting owned by the Baltimore Museum of Art; all are painted into the design, not unlike a Robert Rauschenberg collage.
All these images support the ongoing propaganda used to condone Jim Crow laws and romanticize the Confederacy, so Adams adds subtle red markings, usually over figures’ eyes, to denote her own protest against their supposed historic validity. In the center of the painting, a large silhouette of the eponymous monument looms, patterned with a darker section of quilt. Its shape hosts a central vignette from 2017: documentation of the historic removal of the same monument.
Each painting in the series is similarly chock full of historic research and comes with copious wall text to decode the specifics of each image. What makes these works engaging as aesthetic objects despite their inclination to overwhelm, is their reliance on the visual elements of our collective past that build trust with the viewer. These elements feel familial, comforting, and even romantic. When you allow yourself to be swept up into the richness of the details, you become complicit in appreciating them; you can’t tell at first which images were created as confederate propaganda and which were by black artists. It is this realization we all can relate to — that our cruelest and most vile racist structures are in some ways motivated by a love for creature comforts and pretty things — that packs the hardest punch.
Not merely educational or anthropological, Germinal is successful on its own terms because it forges a personal connection with the viewer through generous decorative detail. This show has the potential to radicalize and to offend. Those likely to be affronted are the descendants of the groups behind erecting the Confederate monuments, who still live in the region, or Maryland’s Trump voters who claim to “have black friends,” but are comfortable with Baltimore schools not having heat in the winter.
In this new body of work, Adams has taken considerable risks exposing Baltimore’s racist and Confederate roots, taking on a unique brand of structural racism and obliquely linking it to the violence Baltimore continues to face today. Rather than depicting the violence inherent in this history in order to motivate and educate her audience, as Kara Walker and Hank Willis Thomas do, Adams has chosen to walk a thin, intersectional line, opting not to fetishize or traumatize black bodies, but instead focus on the role of white Baltimoreans in an ongoing system of oppression. Adams’s placement of women at the center of this conversation, as both as leaders and villains, is a much needed first step in reclaiming our historic narratives and making space for a future where women’s political and activist power can achieve its full potential.