University of Illinois: Artist’s solo show emphasizes Black resilience through historic vigilantism

Artist Patrick Earl Hammie’s newest work is a mixture of joy and horror.

It combines drawings of dancers and entertainers from the TV dance program “Soul Train” that celebrate Black excellence with images of 19th- and 20th-century lynch mobs. Hammie’s work is on view in a solo show titled “I Am … Legend,” at Freeport Art Museum through Feb. 12.

Head shot of Patrick Earl Hammie
Patrick Earl Hammie is a professor of painting and sculpture and the chair of the studio arts program in the School of Art and Design.

Courtesy Patrick Earl Hammie

Hammie is a professor of painting and sculpture and the chair of the studio arts program in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He specializes in portraiture and is interested in storytelling, the body in visual culture and Black experiences.

“I Am … Legend” features 10 printed digital drawings that Hammie made based on images from “Soul Train,” set against painted wall installations. The paintings covering the walls of the gallery are huge, light gray silhouettes of figures from photographs of lynch mobs. The “Soul Train” drawings are displayed on top of the wall paintings.

“The silhouettes are looming in the space, seemingly like shadows of the past,” Hammie said.

Visitors are part of the crowds in different ways – both the crowd of dancers in the “Soul Train” images and the crowd of the lynch mob, Hammie said.

He also collaged a Rorschach image from the lynch mob photos and painted it on one of the gallery walls.

The exhibition looks at the history of racialized terrorism using an ethno-gothic lens to consider the “fear of the other.” It also asks how collective experiences can promote empathy.

“The whole thing is a big study, trying to find ways of bringing images of ‘Soul Train’ and the silhouettes of the mob from lynching photographs together and talk about their correlations and connections. If we love Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight or the Staple Singers, but we’re unconscious of or supportive of the consequences and legacies of lynchings, how can we reconcile that with the future Marvin Gayes and Tina Turners who could be ripped from this world because of unchecked vigilantism and biased policing?” Hammie said.

Image of a black and white drawing of Tina and Ike Turner performing.
A drawing of Tina and Ike Turner on “Soul Train” is part of the “I Am … Legend” show.

Courtesy Patrick Earl Hammie

His previous project “Birth Throes” explored the experiences of Black American families through the stories of his own family. He ended that project by reflecting on a painting of his parents on their wedding day in 1976. Hammie said the painting created an opportunity to picture Black joy, and he wanted to revisit the 1970s and the celebration of “Soul Train,” which began airing a decade before he was born.

“’Soul Train’ transported you to the glitz and suede of this speculative Black space,” he said.

Image of a wall painted with light gray silhouettes of figures who are part of a lynch mob.
Hammie used images he found in photographs and postcards depicting lynchings for the painted wall installations.

Courtesy Patrick Earl Hammie

The events of the past year and a half have Hammie thinking about horror as well.

“Horror, in a time of the heightened horrific, like now, is less about the spectacle and more about a way to talk about things. Artists of color are using horror critically to get to American realities,” such as in the new “Candyman” film, he said.

Hammie said he sees both the lynchings carried out by some white Americans and “Soul Train” as forms of “family-friendly” American pastimes.

“What both spaces were selling was speculative futures. ‘Soul Train’ was imagining a place of safety and celebration that seemed necessary following the deaths of so many progressive leaders and the tumult of the ‘60s. Lynchings were places to reinforce values. They were working to ensure their preferred futures, trying to secure what they thought was the most favorable situation for them and their kids,” he said.

The title of the exhibition refers to the “I Am a Man” phrase used in civil rights protests to declare Black people’s humanity, as well as the Richard Matheson book “I Am Legend,” a post-apocalyptic vampire story.

Imgae of a wall painted with light gray silhouettes and displaying framed drawings.
A view of one wall of the “I Am … Legend” exhibition at Freeport Art Museum.

Courtesy Patrick Earl Hammie

Hammie worked with artist and psychologist Kamau Grantham and artist and Illinois graphic design professor Stacey Robinson, both of whom are also DJs, to create a playlist on Spotify to accompany the exhibition.

Prior to its invitation for a solo show by Hammie, Freeport Art Museum asked him to help with its efforts to improve community engagement and better represent people of color. Hammie and the museum co-wrote the BIPOC Initiative to support five years of exhibitions of racially diverse artists. The museum chose Hammie as the first artist for the initiative, and he chose a second artist who also has a solo show at the museum alongside Hammie’s exhibition. Each invited artist chooses another artist for the next exhibition, which is an important part of the initiative, Hammie said.

“When artists of color reach a certain level, their work is compared to the predominately white canon. But artists of color are interested in talking with other artists of color,” he said.

The exhibitions “open up more space for the community to see themselves reflected and feel more welcome,” Hammie said.

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