Eye-catching is too weak a term for “Junkanoo Dreamscape.” The work, by Cuyahoga Falls-based artist Keith Wisdom, is acrylic and colored pencil on paper. Look closely and you’ll see much of the work is stippling, done with an acrylic fine-point pen, giving the work’s undulating lines a three-dimensional feel.
Keith is Bahamian. This work, he explains, is an abstraction of Junkanoo, a festival the country celebrates every Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 — two days that slaves had off under English colonial rule.
“Central to my art, I know, is color,” Keith says. “I really need people to understand that I’m from the Bahamas, and color is all around us… This festival called Junkanoo — I saw this and I heard this before I could walk, and it did something to me. I remember thinking, ‘wow, this is almost scary.’ I didn’t feel like, ‘oh, it’s going to affect me deeply.’ But it did.”
It affected him so deeply that he spent much of his life studying it. In 1985, Keith finished a doctorate from the University of Georgia. His dissertation was titled, “Bahamian Junkanoo: An Act in a Modern Social Drama.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rosalie Murphy: What does Junkanoo mean to you?
Keith Wisdom: I’m from the Bahamas. We were a colonized people. We had a group of people called the English who came to our country, who said, “You are English.” Imagine the boldness of that: “You are English.”
I started working in the hospital at [age] 11, in the pharmacy. At 13, the same year I started theater, I moved to orthopedics. By the time I left for school — I went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., which is an HBCU, to go into medicine — I was a complete orthopedic technician. I knew how to put on casts. I was going to be a doctor.
I went to Fisk University freshman year, biology, and had the roughest time. But here’s the thing — in that same year, I did “The Zoo Story,” which is a complex, rough play, a two-man play. I remember thinking, “I’m really good at this.”
(Wisdom went on to complete an MFA and a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.)
In the Bahamas, so much of who we are as a people and as performers and what we really care about has to do with this Junkanoo. So my dissertation had to be about that… When the festival is happening, [the city] moves into a different kind of realm. It’s a transformative realm. You might be prime minister in the usual everyday life, but in Junkanoo, the head of the Junkanoo group… that’s the leader. And I thought, ‘wow, look at that dynamic. Reality is reality, but authenticity is what you have in this thing.’
So I went home with my Ph.D. I worked with my prime minister. I built a community television station from scratch. I made 44 interviews, “portraits,” that were about the individuals that were part of our independence. Our independence happened in my senior year of high school, and I was in it. The largest crowd that I’ve ever performed for, as a character selling a slave, was in the Junkanoo celebration the night before we became independent. 75,000 people.
You can’t talk Junkanoo without the costumes and color. You can’t talk Junkanoo without the music and the rhythm and the repetition of the goat-skin drum. All these things are what I try to capture in my painting. My work is abstract, and Junkanoo is very realistic in its themes… but as my instructor tells me, there’s an abstract painting behind every realistic painting. It’s the abstractness of those colors clashing that has impacted my art.
All of that, that happened in my life… it all kind of comes back to this. Who are we? And who am I, and how am I related to that? Junkanoo is key.
RM: What is the experience of Junkanoo like?
Before he answers, Keith pulls out his phone and shows me a five-minute video. In it, people in elaborate paper-and-wire costumes process down a street, dancing to rhythmic, percussive music with seemingly boundless energy.
KW: You were looking at it being performed that way, like a parade. That’s what it was made into. That’s not what it is. In actual Junkanoo… they performed in a circle around a fire. In modern Junkanoo, there’s a sense of, ‘oh, I’ve got to wait to hear the rest of the music.’ That was imposed on Junkanoo by the white English merchant class.
What they were really doing was controlling the wildness of it. They heard these wild nights, our celebrations, and they would take their groups to go see the Blacks perform. This is how our costuming began to develop — we started to use it as a silent kind of protest. Some of the songs became less African and more European, and we would do things like the quadrille, that were like what the slaves saw when they were serving the English. We would dress up like them and show off their airs… but we were really protesting.
RM: How did you come to be an artist living in Cuyahoga Falls?
KW: My wife is an American, out of Atlanta, a Spellman [College] graduate. Spellman is an HBCU; that’s how we met. She is a professor of education here at Kent State. I was in the diversity department over at Kent State for a while. I ran the multicultural center for a year. That contract ended… so I started painting. I continued painting. And now it’s all I do, it’s who I am.
I didn’t start painting until I was 35. But the same eye that I learned as a performer, it think it’s the same eye that I’m using now to paint. It’s the same creative impulse. I have to paint every day. I sometimes have to get up and paint because I can’t sleep through the idea. It’s just a fantastic feeling.
Images, sequentially: “Junkanoo Dreamscape,” “Flying High,” “Wild,” “God… Help Us.” All works by Keith Wisdom. “Junkanoo Dreamscape” is normally presented vertically, but is displayed here horizontally for fit. Images used with the artist’s permission.
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.