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Remembering through Contemporary Art (Story)

Remembering through Contemporary Art

Written by Jennifer Dasal, Curator of modern and contemporary art at the NC

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks upon us, it seems only fitting that we step back to reflect on the unutterable losses that have ultimately changed our world. Across the country, memorials will be held, poetry read, and prayers uttered. It’s not a surprise, then, when we consider that the Art World has been affected by this tragedy as well—and New York, in particular, is ripe with artistic expression surrounding the events of September 11.

In commemoration of the anniversary, numerous galleries and art centers have come together as part of a citywide event, titled “Remembering 9/11: The 10th Anniversary.” All told, more than 50 institutions are partaking in exhibitions, readings, and performances dedicated to honoring those lost in the terrorist attacks. Now that a decade has passed, it seems that some artists now feel that their wounds—personal, physical or psychic—have healed enough to revisit, leading to a proliferation of works.

The Brooklyn Museum is presenting Ten Years Later: Ground Zero Remembered, an exhibition featuring works by two artists, Michael Richards and Christoph Draeger. The inclusion of Richards is especially notable for NCMA visitors, who may be familiar with Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, currently located in our Modern and Contemporary Galleries. During his tragically short career, Michael Richards frequently addressed issues of social injustice, creating stunning sculptures that criticize oppression.

Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots whose heroic contributions to World War II were recognized only in the past few decades. The sculpture itself, cast from the artist’s own body, represents a gold-painted airman penetrated on all sides by small airplanes, reminiscent of the arrows shot at St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr and saint. The title of the work, with its double reference to the saint and a southern folktale of entrapment, pays tribute to the Tuskegee pilots—and to all who suffer intolerance and unfairness.

The back story of the sculpture, though, is a haunting one, and is quite pertinent to the anniversary of 9/11. The work itself, in effect a self-portrait, now seems an eerie foretelling of the artist’s death. Richards was a victim of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001—his studio was on the ninety-second floor of Tower One. Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, too, was feared lost in the wreckage, as it was not found in the remains of the artist’s studio, or at his home. It was only revealed later to be stored in a relative’s garage outside of New York City.

Now housed at the NCMA on long-term loan, the work is a commemoration of the artist’s life and talents and a memorial, of sorts, for September 11. Stop by over the weekend and include this as a must-see on your list.