The image is at once comically absurd and sobering. Three young men sit on plastic patio chairs at a table in a rowboat, drinking through straws from fruit-colored cups. A mango tree grows out of one side of the boat as a packaged loaf of Sunbeam bread floats by. In the distance, other Sunbeam loaves bob on the water’s surface, and two figures also appear semi-submerged. One of them holds a rope tied to the boat, suggesting it won’t go very far.
The figures are Somali immigrants and the work, “In a Dream Bait” (2017), is part of the exhibition “Journey: The Artistry of Curlee Holton,” on view through Nov. 26 at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Arts Program Gallery.
In his exhibition-catalog commentary, Howard University Professor Emeritus Floyd Coleman wrote that the boat is “ostensibly set out to sea en route to the United States but is tethered by a conspicuous rope, ensuring that they [its occupants] will never reach their destination.” He added, “They will not realize the elusive American Dream.”
Holton confirmed by email that his painting does comment on the journeys that immigrants take to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. “In this case, the bait of the dream is a loaf of mass-produced Sunbeam bread, symbolic of the lure that is empty of any real nutritional value,” he said. Where Coleman sees the rope holding the boat back, the artist notes the female figure being “pulled along with them, symbolic of the culture they bring from their home land.”
The work, Holton said, is based on observation of young men in Portland, Maine, “where there is a large [Somali] community, but [they] do not integrate and often are hidden in the shadows of the community.”
Shedding much-needed light on that which lurks hidden in the shadows is a large part of Holton’s work. The artist said he hopes the takeaway for exhibit viewers is that the art in the UMUC show is both a visually entertaining encounter as well as a representation of “deeply-held beliefs and understandings of the world we live in.”
And when asked about several exhibit-catalog references to his art’s capacity for compelling viewers to examine their humanity, Holton professed that “the creative gift can be a means of expressing your humanity, and also a way in which one can connect with the humanity of others.”
If the Mississippi-born artist, who has traveled in Latin America, Europe, West Africa, and Asia, sounds like he has as great a way with words as he does with images, there’s a reason. Holton, who is a careful student of philosophy and literature, has said, “I often read a book of poetry before I begin to paint.”
UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key said he sees a great deal of nuance in Holton’s artistry. “He has these subtle hints throughout his work,” Key said, noting that while many artists mine mythology and literature in their works, Holton’s explorations can be particularly deep.
“The pieces come off as pretty aesthetics, and then as soon as you start looking into them, you see these cultural references,” he said. “Curlee does this because it’s part of his thinking.”
Holton’s subtle examination of southern black culture often uses masks and dolls. And there can be certain kinds of trees, a particular wallpaper, a characteristic pair of pants, or a mule and a cart. “Those little things take us instantly back to the South,” Key said. “You have to spend time with the piece in order to see it.”
“Montague’s Moment” is among the nearly 50 works in the show. It shows a young man and a dog set against a dramatic landscape. To the right, a shadowy figure emerges, which Key identified as a photographer, documenting the scene. There is a parallel between the dog’s eyes and the boy’s eyes, Key said. “It is seeing life through the position of these two creatures.”
And on Holton’s depictions of dolls, in such works as “Patty, Save Me” and “Baby Doll,” Key noted that dolls can be very controversial—for example when blond-haired, white dolls are held up as ideals of beauty rather than ones that affirm African-American beauty. “Even in 2017, identity and stereotypes still exist,” he said.
Other Holton works in the exhibition, such as “Man, Mask, Meaning,” “To Live with the Mask of the Past,” and “Silence,” show figures wearing or carrying a mask that, according to Key, references African masks. He added that in dual societies, many people have to wear a variety of masks.
“As an African-American walking through American culture, you wear a mask for one reason or another,” Key said, adding that particularly during recent difficult times, “you have to continue to smile at racism and diplomatically address these things.”