The new installation at the Weston Gallery called “And the Presence of Light” by Oberlin, OH based artist Johnny Coleman is inspired by the story of 4 year old Lee Howard Dobbins, an adopted child and fugitive slave who died in Oberlin on route to Canada, and freedom, in 1853. He contracted tuberculosis while traveling north from Kentucky with eight women seeking freedom in Canada. Among them was Dobbins’ adopted mother, her children, and grandchildren, who were unable to wait for Dobbins to recover for fear of being captured and returned to slavery. They left him in the care of a family in Oberlin, where nine days later he succumbed to the illness. Dobbins’ headstone, which includes the phrase “Let Slavery Perish!” is part of the Oberlin College Archives. The child’s tragic death was a significant event in the fervently abolitionist community; it was reported that over 1000 people attended his funeral.
Coleman, who holds the Young Hunter Professorship of Art and Africana Studies at Oberlin College, has a long history of creating multimedia installations that he calls “intentional gestures in homage and prayer”. While he has created three previous works or “gestures” for the child, “And the Presence of Light” is the first “Intentional Gesture” of an ongoing series that pays homage to the women in Dobbins’ story.
The installation, tucked into a corner of the Weston’s expansive atrium, shares winter’s desaturated palette. It consists of a small shed-like building clad in brown burlap, surrounded by dead leaves and flowers. The building is in the shape of a typical “shotgun house”, a narrow, raised, single story wood-frame home with no inner hallways, a structure with a history that can be traced to West African and Caribbean architecture and the migration of formerly enslaved people in the United States. This modest, vernacular architecture is the visual motif of the installation that we see repeated throughout.
In the context of the soaring gallery, the small building , raised on a platform, reads like a temple or shrine, with a formal entrance flanked by two blue glass bowls and worn wooden benches. A single birdhouse, mimicking the shape of the building, is perched beside the door. From this comes the call of a blackbird, an animal revered as spiritually significant in many cultures. Coleman’s repeated use of certain ritualized elements in several of his Dobbins-themed “gestures”, such as the baby’s breath, worn wood, and blue glass bowls, transform the blank gallery canvas into a sacred space, sparsely furnished, pale, and hushed.
Tufts of cotton poke through the edges of the exterior burlap around the doorway, giving a clue to the delicate white cotton batting that covers the interior walls like a baby’s blanket. Inside, the sound of women’s voices becomes audible, emanating from eight more birdhouses hung from the ceiling. Soft, murmuring voices blend to create an undercurrent for one evolving dominant, clear speaking voice. These are voices of eight contemporary Oberlin women who recite their written responses to the eight women who passed through there seeking freedom in 1853. Their responses weave in and out of each other. Some recite biblical passages, some reflect on their own experience of motherhood and the pain of losing children, some urge on the women in their quest for freedom, comparing their struggle to the struggle that continues to this day. Underneath, the murmuring voices blend with another sound, a repetitive push of water lapping against a shore.
Inside the house is a window frame on which is projected a video of small, candlelit lanterns, in the shape of shotgun houses, floating on water. This light references the lit candle in a window as a sign of welcome and safety for Underground Railroad travelers. The lanterns’ glow comes in and out of focus, and the objects grow larger and smaller as the perspective of the camera moves. The background is dark as night and the calm water is just barely visible if you can catch a reflection undulating among the floating houses. The view from this window presents a shifting, unmoored perspective of an unnamed body of water. It is disorienting, the blending of hard and soft edges, with no solid ground, and only the warmly glowing, pointed gable of a roofline in the distance as a lingering image. The viewer could be in enslaved in Kentucky, looking across the Ohio River to a route to freedom; or in Oberlin, dreaming of moving north across Lake Erie to a life without fear of capture, or in a fever of consumption, with a view to a final home across the river Jordan, the biblical boundary between life and death.
This installation is conceived of as a dreamscape – although it is derived from a specific historical narrative, this work is intended to honor rather than reconstruct it. This approach frees the artist to conjure and expand meaning across dimensions of time, place and human experience, and makes space for viewers to immerse themselves in the tableaux and all it implies, both within and beyond the boundaries of Dobbins’ story. The shotgun house architecture that we see in the building, birdhouses, and lanterns is minimalist and archetypal; the stories we encounter in Coleman’s statement and the women’s voices are contemporary, historic and ancient; the sounds we hear and the view we see from the window are digital mirages that place us in territory that is only vaguely familiar. The tidily assembled elements at first seem to progress with a logic of reality, but then become symbolic and fragmented, hinting at meaning, which is of course the abiding mechanism of dreams. Women become birds, calling out and responding. Their migration, their flight, their brief rest in the shotgun house, their pain, and their return as a new generation of women all happen simultaneously. The house becomes a cotton-lined nest, empty except for echoes of mothers and sisters. The view from the window is fluid, unreliably drifting and dissolving.
When viewers grasp for solid ground in the midst of this dreamscape, their own knowledge, experience, and questions connect them to what they have encountered. They become a part of this story, and the story becomes a part of them. Although the location of this shotgun house may be ambiguous, as viewers we bring an awareness that we are in Cincinnati, a place that literally exists between the reality of the life of Lee Howard Dobbins, an enslaved child from Kentucky, and the reality of an artist in Oberlin re-envisioning this experience nearly 170 years later. What role did Cincinnati play in the journey of this child across the Ohio River in 1853? Have we made the journey from Cincinnati to Oberlin and can we imagine traveling the route in hiding? With children? When the women speak to the ways in which they continue to struggle, do we witness or experience that struggle in this very place?
Viewers will miss something if they experience this installation as merely a theatrical symbol of Dobbin’s story. Any person who comes to see this art is also living in a very real, very immediate time of disease, death, loss, migration, and dangerous political and social strife. The cumulative voices of the women, the physicality of the architecture, and the simplicity of the imagery provide elements that continue to rise and fall in my own memory like unresolved questions, like a song stuck in your head with words you can’t quite recall. Coleman has planted the seed of a dream in my mind, one that leaves me feeling uncertain, shifting, thinking about freedom, missing home, calling, and listening for a response in the distance.