Powerful and Courageous: Joyce Morrow Jones at moCa Cleveland
Dolls are ancient and universal. Most often these figurines, whether large or small, call them mannequins, puppets, dummies, or children’s toys – are of comfort or of use; others are distinctly uncanny. The tools of wizards and priests, such objects focus passion and purpose, and invoke (it is claimed) the spirits of the dead. In every corner of the human world folklore recounts how such figures – whether made out of cloth or wood, mud or marble, can take on a kind of life.
In the practice of Ohio-based artist Joyce Morrow Jones there is yet another use for this primordial art form. Jones is widely known to Cleveland’s gallery and art education scene as an accomplished fiber artist and the city’s premier maker of fine art dolls, produced for didactic and creative purposes. Her exhibit Black Butterfly (Nov 19, 2021 – Jan 2, 2022) at moCa Cleveland presents mixed media sculptural dolls and other fiber and polymer works in two of the museum’s upper rooms. Considered as a group they’re a crash course in the tragic history of the African Diaspora in the Americas. Taken one at a time, they embody lessons in spirituality and survival, and are semi-votive objects dedicated to the gods and traditions of the Ifa religion of West Africa, and other African belief systems. Ifa survived the fatal voyages of the so-called “middle passage” during the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade.
Over the past several months Jones conducted workshops, lectured and made her art on site as moCa Cleveland’s very first Artist in Residence, inaugurating an exciting new phase of the contemporary museum’s programming. Her history-soaked sculptures, made from a variety of materials evoking African and Caribbean cultural sources, are powerful explorations of an essentially sacred activity.
“Black Butterfly,” takes its name from the 1984 song by Denice Williams. The song is a hymn of arrival and triumph, an affirmation of greatness of spirit achieved through sufferings of peoples of color. Jones’ sculptural installation is among other things a celebration (though a somber one) by an artist of African and Jamaican heritage, born and raised in northern Ohio. “Black Butterfly” the exhibit honors Jones’s art, lending it cultural gravity and professional success following years of effort. On another level it also seems to mark a turning point for moCa as an institution. After fifty-three years, the organization that originally owed its (deserved) prominence to a link with the New York gallery scene of the 1960’s, has with its first (ever) AIR program declared a newfound comradeship with contemporary artists in the region. The new residency is a landmark addition to the Museum’s programming, brought about in part by currents in 21st century political upheaval, and 21st century curatorship. Following Joyce Morrow Jones, two other women artists of color will fill the position in 2022 — the photographer Amber N. Ford (January-May) and the painter/multimedia conceptualist Erykah Townsend (July-November).
In the larger of the rooms where “Black Butterfly” is installed, Jones presents seventeen mixed media sculptures. Six are mounted on the walls or on shelves, and eleven others occupy pedestals scattered through the space. Each reads as a chapter in the history of Yoruba Ifa religion and the deep-dyed horror of the Maafa (in Kiswahili), the vast doom that millions suffered through the slave trade, and which continues to distort the social fabric of the modern world. They are also brilliantly realized visions of the Ifa pantheon, the Orisas which are the powers of the earth and its elements. Reminiscent of other symbolic spiritual maps, like the Stations of the Cross in Catholicism, or Tantric representations of Bodhisattvas, many of Jones’ densely symbolic works portray human experience in terms of root and branch, seed, growth, and flowering; the Talalay classroom where they are displayed is host to an otherworldly orchard of hybrid tree and godlike (sometimes daemonic) forms, imagining recurrence and transformation as they rise from the ground of being. Jones’ studies at the College of Wooster (BA 1984) centered on sociology and religion. Her expertise adds unusual discipline to the mythic depictions here.
Among Jones’ most intriguing series, collaged from shreds and samples of colorful patterned African Kente cloth, beads and cowry shells, are a group titled “Ancestree” — “Ancestree: The Beginning,” “Ancestree: As Above, So Below,” “Ancestree: The Weeping,” and so on. About this last, named work she writes, “I envisioned what a tree would feel like after being used for a lynching…The bare branches expressing deep loss while emphasizing the cascading crystals. I ask [visitors] what draws you to this tree. Most reply, “the sadness and the tears.” Mounted on a white shelf near the far end of the left-hand wall “Weeping” is, in art historical terms, a Pieta – a woman cradling death itself, so to speak, mourning injustice and mortality personified by the body of a beloved adult or child. “Weeping” presents a scene of terrible pain. The tree-woman’s lips are bright red, like a wound or a scream, though her mouth is closed; her eyes are dark and expressionless. Her gown is also her trunk, dark brown and seamed like heavy bark. Her hair is long and braided, vine-like branches snake out from behind her head and shoulders. They arc and fall in a sorrowful downward sweep like willow branches. The androgynous figure held at her waist is young, though not a child, and wears a plain, very realistic white sweater, giving this part of the work a strong accent and contrasting with the color and pattern everywhere else in the room. Long streams of crystal tears flow down through the branches like rain, jewels of sorrow. I think of Billie Holiday’s song about lynchings, “Strange Fruit,” and am horrified, and stirred, by the frankness of Jones’s imagery. Spread beneath the tree is a circular patch of patterned brown, green, and ocher kente cloth, looking like a map; it may be a representation of fields, in Africa or America. It also may represent the earth itself, and “Weeping” is the World Tree, grieving for each death. White and black symbols are woven into the silk and cotton hand-made fabric. In this context they look like gravestones, or tally marks, counting the dead.
Twelve more sculptures and fiber art pieces occupy moCa’s Rayburn Workroom across the hall. Subjects of Jones’s wide-ranging observations and critiques in this group include meditations on indoctrination and nationalism, others deal with the cotton and indigo industries. Everywhere greed and cruelty alternate with spiritual strength and the harmonics of beauty, embodied here in an art practice that remembers and continues the intensity and wisdom of age-old spiritual beliefs. This extraordinary installation inaugurates moCa’s programming breakthrough with powerful and courageous works by one of the city’s own.