Brendan Fernandes’s Returning to Before, commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in response to the exhibition “William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision” (on view through September 10, 2023), proposes that gesture can reach back through time and connect us with the past. Fernandes, a Canadian-born, Chicago-based artist, works at the intersection of dance and visual art, addressing cultural displacement, migration, labor, and queer subjectivity. At the Barnes, his choreography brings bodies into dialogue with stone, drawing from ballet and modern and contemporary dance to craft a vocabulary that allows dancers to interact freely with Edmondson’s sculptures. The structure of Returning to Before aligns with that of Contract and Release, a 2019 piece that Fernandes made for the Noguchi Museum in response to works by Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham.
Edmondson (c. 1874–1951), who was born to previously enslaved sharecroppers on the Compton Plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee, gained fame in 1937 as the first Black artist to be awarded a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. A self-taught visionary who referred to his creations as divinely inspired “miracles,” he came to sculpture late in life after working for decades as a custodian at the Nashville Women’s Hospital. The figures that he carved throughout the 1930s and ’40s were created to serve as tombstones and monuments for deceased members of Nashville’s Black community, and also for exhibition and sale to white patrons.
“William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision” is the most substantial East Coast retrospective of the artist’s work in more than 20 years, part of a project designed to build on the historic core of Albert C. Barnes’s collection by examining works by artists within Barnes’s ambit. Bringing diverse voices and bodies into the museum and creating unexpected juxtapositions, the exhibition—and Fernandes’s choreographed response—spark conversation around the fraught relationship between Black cultural production and American museum spaces. Dancers Tiffany Mangulabnan, Allison Walsh, Mikal Gilbert, and Brena Thomas animate the space between the sculptures in a weekend performance series, putting Edmondson’s work in stimulating company. Fernandes worked with these performers to develop the choreography, collaborating with Barnes exhibition designer Yaumu Huang to create the jacquard tapestry that rests alongside Edmondson’s sculptures.
During Saturday performances, the four dancers enter the gallery silently. They move slowly and with great dignity around Edmondson’s works, pausing among them in attitudes of active regard. They ascend a plinth and take up positions at the tapestry’s four corners, undulating as a conglomerate, then move from the center to respond in individual ways. Their movements, Fernandes has written, “evoke the innate choreographic nature of Edmondson’s own sculpture-making, chiseling, and carving.”
Edmondson’s figures derive their power from their compelling embodiment. Head of a Woman (1930), both sculpted figure and tombstone, evokes not only the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, but also God’s original creative act in bringing life forth from inanimate matter. Indeed, all of Edmondson’s carvings retain a quality of overt stoniness, as if perennially coming into being, even as they inhabit a range of good-guy personae, including nurses, teachers, preachers, angels, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, a Mermaid, and a Talking Owl. These figures exude tranquility—in Edmondson’s world, even the humble Opossum is a model of natural decorum and gravitas—and yet they are full of potential force. Practical and expressive mark-making are often beguilingly similar, distinguished from one another by the most delicate inflections. The feathery chisel strokes that flake the stone can articulate differently, bite a bit deeper, and become the neckline of a schoolteacher’s pinafore, a uniformed nurse’s bowtie, or an angel’s eyes.
These sculptures are intensely regional and local, and many of them were made in pragmatic response to a community’s funerary needs. Yet they also exist in conversation with the big themes—life, death, and the threshold between them. Edmondson sculpted the subject of Martha and Mary at least twice, producing two studies in opposites. One sister was known for her devotion to the daily round, cooking and cleaning for Jesus; Mary engendered Martha’s ire by ditching her domestic responsibilities in order to sit at Christ’s feet and listen to his teaching. One figure exists in ordinary time, while the other inhabits a contemplative, extraordinary timeline outside the round of chores. Yet Edmondson sculpts them like two peas in a pod: solid, beatific twins become a single stony berm, with no daylight visible between them. The Martha/Mary dialectic characterizes all of Edmondson’s sculptures to some degree, in the sense that they interface between the workaday world and the world of the spirit. Biblical creatures including doves, lambs, rams, and lions become emissaries from Christ’s spiritual kingdom—a regime that will invert received ideas about productivity and respectability, making “the last first and the first last.”
A hard worker throughout his life, Edmondson became financially successful; he owned not only his own home on 14th Avenue in Nashville, but also a large yard that served as both studio and showroom. A short newsreel produced to document the 1937 MoMA exhibition shows Edmondson graciously hosting the film crew in his yard—demonstrating his technique for the camera, laughing and joking with a neighbor who happens to drop by. The clip gives some sense of his process. It communicates the full-body nature of the work, the need for strength, and the repetitive, meditative nature of the necessary gestures. It shows privation, but also dignity and self-reliance: the artist’s shoes are ragged, but his yard is swept meticulously clean. The footage underscores how Edmondson’s process was supported by his community, in both material and immaterial ways. The artist supplied himself with stone thanks to the relationships he developed with Black quarry workers at Ezell Mill and Stone Company in nearby Newsom Station, Tennessee—when they came to Nashville with deliveries, quarry workers obligingly stopped at Edmondson’s yard to drop off, free of charge, any small, odd-shaped stones that contractors had rejected as unusable. Matthew’s gospel has Christ saying, “The stone that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone,” a statement literally true of Edmondson’s practice.
Edmondson’s yard figures prominently in documentary photographs taken by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston in the 1930s. These images played an instrumental role in shaping the artist’s reception by white audiences; Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs brought Edmondson’s sculpture to the attention of Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art, a connection that resulted in the 1937 solo show. Here, the photos are sited at a distance from the sculptures. Constrained by the limitations of the white gaze, they nevertheless reveal piercing details—the worn Oxfords customized with matching instep cutouts that Edmondson wears in one Weston portrait, for instance—as well as valuable information about the way that dozens of sculptures in various stages of completion coexisted on an elevated platform in the yard. Exhibition designers at the Barnes, inspired by these images, have shaped the gallery space with natural light, green walls, and an open plan that makes it possible for the sculptures to be seen together in proximity, as their maker originally arranged them.
Fernandes’s tapestry rests in this space atop a knee-high plinth. Its sepia-tinged earth tones recall the warm, flat hues of a photograph from the 1970s. Images represented in the weave include Rorschach blurs and cowrie shells, radiating in alternation from a circular cutout at the center. The latter imagery has appeared before in Fernandes’s oeuvre, as the subject of an NFT series. Today, cowries are a globally distributed beach-town souvenir; in the past, they were used as currency by people in West Africa, India, and China. The mollusk’s presence evokes the violent collision of cultures and symbols wrought by Western colonization. Meanwhile, its formal associations are provocative in their own right. The smooth, bulbous curves of the carapace recall the oceanic; then on the underside, there’s that long, inescapably suggestive slit, ostentatiously lined with teeth. Likewise, in Edmondson’s sculptures of women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt (1940), bodies and costumes are defined by deeply incised, undulating curves that cause figure/ground relationships to read as ambiguous, inviting shifting readings.
The four dancers of Returning to Before move into the exhibition space without fanfare, floating in diaphanous costumes designed by Katrin Schnabl. First, they move slowly among Edmondson’s sculptures, regarding them; then they ascend and gather into a collective that undulates slowly around the tapestry’s central void. Sweeping, embracing gestures bring bodies atop one another in an oscillating pile that reaches up to the light, weaving like an anemone in an ocean current. Spines arch and curl in rhythm with the breath. Recognizable shapes, like a ronde de jambe en l’air, emerge. Clavicles, fingers, scapulae, and arched insteps articulate from the pulsing mass as dancers begin to reenact elements of the sculptures’ gestural vocabulary, breaking off from the conglomerate one by one to offer individual responses. Recurrent moves echo ones that Edmondson had previously shaped in Tennessee limestone. Fernandes’s choreography has dancers punctuate passages of flowing movement by coming to rest with one hand positioned on the stomach, the other resting protectively over the heart. This doubly resonant gesture is charged with an aura of self-care that evokes the yoga studio, even as it echoes the gestures of Edmondson sculptures like Girl with a Cape and Untitled (Angel). Likewise, dancers repeatedly bring cupped hands to their mouths, signaling across a void of space or time as they reenact a gesture memorably made by Edmondson’s Squirrel.
In the 1930s, Edmondson conceptualized his process in a way that exceeded the contemporary limits of discourse around modern art. In interviews, he said that he experienced the urge to pick up tools and carve stone in response to God’s command. At the time, museums of modern art didn’t know what to do with a creative practice vested in spirit. Thanks to curatorial efforts like those underway at the Barnes and creative interventions like Returning to Before, this is beginning to change. Fernandes’s creative practice, superficially very different from Edmondson’s, is equally preoccupied with bridges between the everyday world and the world of the spirit, and Returning to Before recognizes the otherworldly dimension of the older sculptor’s works. It posits the museum as a potentially spiritualized space, creating ephemeral points of rupture where the spirit might pass through. Framing Edmondson’s stone figures with soft, elastic bodies, it welcomes the sculpture home.