One of the prints that moved me most in the show was one I had never seen before: "Revolt on the Amistad." When looking at it from afar, the jumble of scraggly blocks of color almost looks abstract—peach, black, green, and blue all layered on top of one another. But a closer look reveals bloody knives, shackles, toes, grimaces, and the violent sea.
The 1989 print is, of course, depicting the famous 1839 revolt of the enslaved Africans on the Spanish ship La Amistad. While the issue of these Africans' freedom would be meted out in court (a landmark case which they won), Lawrence instead focuses on the violence that preceded the legal issue where the 53 enslaved people murdered nearly every Spanish slaver on board. Lawrence recognized the importance of violence to Black history and Black liberation.
Though "Revolt" isn't bombastic in its depiction of the revolt aboard the deck of the ship, it's still full of emotion and struggle, a representation of the determination and will of enslaved people to resist their condition. Those Africans aboard La Amistad were not just fighting for their own personal freedom, but—in many ways—the freedom of those enslaved across the Western hemisphere.
Perhaps just as good as the print is a statement about the piece by Lawrence himself, written in his squiggly script: "Through color, texture, value and line, I have attempted to show the powerful drive for freedom that is inherent in all of us at cost." A simple—yet profound—explanation for the ability of art to speak culture and soul.
Jacob Lawrence at Greg Kucera Gallery closes this Saturday.