On Eve of Basel Unlimited’s Debut, Artist Radcliffe Bailey Has His Sights Set on Bigger Things

About eight miles from downtown Atlanta sits the Cascade Nature Preserve where, a little over 159 years ago, during the Civil War, Union Army soldiers under General William Sherman launched an offensive against the Confederate railroads in the Battle of Utoy Creek. Artist Radcliffe Bailey lives close by. Over the course of his thirty-plus year career, he has made work similarly entwined with that history, the railroads, the idea of movement across unknowable terrain, and the history, fate, and future of Black people in the United States.

This week, around 4,600 miles away, Jack Shainman Gallery is unveiling his large-scale work Upwards (2018) at Art Basel in Switzerland, a roughly 20-foot square work comprised of a hefty, well-worn and subsequently patched-up shipping tarp bisected by railroad tracks. Half-painting and half-sculpture, it gives you the feeling of looking down onto the world rather than staring at a map. On the top right, there’s a representation of the North Star, a neon “N” that glows blue-ish white. Beneath lay elegantly sweeping arrows pointing in a northeasterly direction over the wrinkles, patches, and discolored areas that give the off-white tarp the impression of being covered in the faintest layer of ashes or old snow. Beneath the surface is the Kongo cosmogram, a central African symbol representing the spiritual and the physical world segmented by the Kalunga line, a watery boundary between the two worlds.

Related Articles

Image of a flat-screen showing a black-and-white video fo a person sleeping.

In Her Kunsthalle Basel Exhibition, Tiona Nekkia McClodden Contemplates Breathing and Mercy

The Sales of Big-Ticket Artworks at Art Basel Give a Peek Into the State of the Market

The work, like all of Bailey’s practice, is layered with history — both his own personal history and that of Black America, stretching all the way across the Atlantic to Africa through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For those Kongo people brought to America against their will, the Atlantic Ocean came to be a kind of Kalunga Line and one can imagine, for those that later escaped slavery by heading north, the Mason-Dixon line became another. Bailey’s ancestors crossed both.

“My father was a railroad engineer,” Bailey told ARTnews in a recent interview at his home. “Both sides of my family came from Virginia, then, through the Underground Railroad, settled in New Jersey, where I was born.”

Bailey’s home, which he designed, built and has lived in for 20 years, is covered with the accumulated bric-a-brac that comes from decades of making art out of history. Photographs, small sculptures, books, and posters of Jazz musicians cover the walls of the house, where he lives with his wife, Leslie Parks-Bailey, a classically-trained chef and the youngest daughter of the legendary photographer Gordon Parks. In his cavernous studio, adjoined to the house by a small thin room, are a trove of 19th-century tintypes, an early photographic method where images were developed directly on a chemically emulsified sheet of metal, along with posters of jazz luminaries like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, stacked stereo speakers, old maps, folded quilts, and taped-up post cards.

There are, of course, also works in progress and finished works as well. In the center is an untitled, in-progress work that appears to be a counterpoint to Upward. Roughly the same height, and similarly bisected by train tracks, it is perhaps twice as wide, and darker. Where Upward is off-white, this tarp, acquired from the same personis a neutral grey. It is pockmarked with patches, some a darker grey, others pure black. They sit on top and underneath each other and vary in size. 

Bailey says he’s drawn to the imperfections in these tarps. They show that they have been somewhere, or rather, they’ve been to so many places that they’ve grown weak in spots. The patches strengthen them, perhaps making them stronger in those spots than they originally were. Underneath the tracks that separate the tarp’s four quadrants, there’s a thick path of charred fabric, the result of Baily using a torch directly on the canvas. The blackened path runs both up and down and across the work, with what looks like flames of pure black carbon rising out of it. In the top right corner, a neon blue “N”, and opposite it, on the bottom right, its corresponding “S”.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Bailey would be attracted to such obviously resilient fabrics of late. Six months ago, he was diagnosed with brain cancer, which was discovered after the artist noticed that he was having difficulty staying balanced. “It caught me off guard,” he said.

“This was one of the first pieces I’ve made since I was hurt,” Bailey said as he looked at the untitled work. He was in a wheelchair and moved around the house with the help of an assistant. But despite the difficulties presented by his illness — for one, what he describes as a numbness on his left side — he is still working. He began the untitled work just two months after his diagnosis.

“A friend told me once to always consider myself a student,” he said. “Always consider yourself emerging. That’s what I’m doing. I’ve always tried, when working, to make it easy to get back to where I was. A reminder.”

Bailey has referenced modes of travel, shipping, and transportation in his work for years, both explicitly and with subtlety, often using antique or reclaimed materials.

Radcliffe Bailey, Nommo (2019)

In 2019, he presented Nommo at that year’s Istanbul Biennial, which recreated the bottom of a ship loosely based on the Clotida, a slave ship that was illegally transporting people decades after Congress banned U.S. importation of slaves. It sunk off the coast of Mobile, Alabama around 1859. Inside the open hull, which was constructed from lumber that Bailey acquired at a shipping yard in Istanbul, are plaster busts, which Bailey molded and cast from a bust he bought from a Belgian antique dealer. The original bust was supposedly a death mask, and given where it was purchased, the person to whom the face once belonged was likely a slave brought over from the Congo. Nommo also has an audio component: in the center of the ship’s hull there’s a radio that’s playing a jazz tune co-written by Bailey underneath which plays a recording of ship builders and ocean waves in the Bay of Soumbédioune, Senegal.

Both Nommo and Upwards show Bailey’s deep engagement with history, something he says came from his mother. “In a way everything is based around my mom. She was a schoolteacher,” he said. “Whenever we went camping, or on a trip, my dad would take us fishing, but my mom, she wanted the history, she wanted to discover everything, to learn everything and pass it on.”

It was on a childhood trip to Charleston, South Carolina that Bailey discovered one of his greatest influences, Phillip Simmons, a Charleston-based blacksmith, who elevated the craft of ironwork to an artform. Throughout the city’s historic downtown, there are ornate wrought-iron gates designed and hammered into life by Simmons. That trip was also the first time he saw a plantation.

“I thought, why are we here? Why are we seeing this? But my mother passed that curiosity on to me,” he said. “I’ve been curious about my family makeup because of her, and you can see that in all my stuff.”

Memory has always been an important part of Bailey’s practice. In his studio, there are many older works that are still unfinished. These often act as jumping-off points for Bailey, a kind of tracks of to follow where he has been and where he might be going.

“For me it’s helpful to remember your tracks,” he said.

It would seem the tracks lead to bigger things, both literally and metaphorically. As an artist, he has always blurred the line between sculpture, architecture and painting. Later this month, he will unveil a cast-concrete amphitheater in the Cascade Nature Preserve that he designed to be a kind of African Stonehenge. An amalgam of his influences, the space is meant to be used for theater productions, jazz performances, and literary readings. “Something people can use that will have a life of its own,” he says. 

His phone rings. It’s his studio assistant. Bailey wants to get back to work. “I’m always thinking about tomorrow, you know? Of what’s next,” he said. “And when I think about what’s next, I don’t want to do some small shit. I want to do some big shit.” 

In Her Kunsthalle Basel Exhibition, Tiona Nekkia McClodden Contemplates Breathing and Mercy

The Sales of Big-Ticket Artworks at Art Basel Give a Peek Into the State of the Market


Pocket Watches From Patek Philippe, Zenith, and More Star in a New N.Y.C. Exhibition


Waxon, Sous La Face Prep Launch of Co-branded Beauty Destinations


Netflix might kill its cheapest Basic plan, and I don’t know why it exists to begin with


ESPN Extends Reality in New Studio Built With ‘Mandalorian’ Tech


The Best Folding Squat Racks for Home Gyms, According to Professional Gym Designers

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *