Cross-Cultural References Converge in The Pits

The Pits stage

A chandelier mixing imagery from the Black Panthers with urban status symbols hangs over a stage covered in faux marble inlay interpretation of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar images altered to depict African American cultural expressions.

Viewers who attended the opening of The Pits by Justin Randolph Thompson, exhibited at the UT Downtown Gallery in October 2011, were treated to a rare opportunity to explore an elegant incorporation of African American expressions with classical references to Roman antiquity and the collaboration of two brothers, both artists and both alumni.

Dorothy Habel, professor and director of the School of Art, said she was struck by the beauty and elegance of Thompson’s work that incorporated source materials from the Italian renaissance. “Parts of the exhibit depended on replicas of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar images. Mantegna’s work shows Roman soldiers carrying booty on poles; Thompson’s poles had boom boxes and Nike shoes.”

Thompson has researched the lives of influential African American artists living in Europe over the last decade, dedicating his investigations to understanding how these artists deal with cross-cultural references in their art. Having moved to Italy in 2001 after graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, he found inspiration in their experiences, yet he also saw how his own life’s work—influenced by a combination of family history, a liberal arts education, and his own experience of Italy—would be different.

The Pits

Justin Randolph Thompson puts the finishing touches on one of the sculptures displayed at his multidisciplinary installation and performance piece, The Pits, exhibited at the UT Downtown Gallery.

Growing up in a home where artistic expression was valued and encouraged, Thompson’s parents and grandfather taught him to appreciate African history and African art at an early age. Because of that influence and his natural talent, Thompson chose to major in art upon entering UT in 1997. But his heritage never fueled his work quite like an experience during his senior year when he was taking an African American anthropology class taught by professor Faye Harrison.

Thompson found so much correspondence between the material in this course and his art that he asked Harrison to come to his studio for a critique.

“I’ve always been a very critical artist, and I’ve always been interested in dialogue with others,” Thompson says. “The fact that Dr. Harrison would cross disciplines to give me feedback on my work was fundamental to me.”

Before graduating, Thompson won an award for the Best Undergraduate Work in the annual School of Art Student Competition as well as the McClure Fellowship that allowed him to move to Florence, Italy, to expand his work in a different culture. Thompson had studied abroad in Florence the year before, during which he was inspired by the work of master artists and became fascinated with Italian culture and history. When he returned the second time, he sought to engage in work that would allow him to draw content equally from his own family history, the collective memory of the African American cultural landscape, and Italy’s multi-layered history.

“When I first moved to Florence, I thought ‘What sense is art about the African American legacy going to make in Italy?’” Thompson recalls. “But I realized the symbols found in Roman antiquity—symbols of power and struggles for triumph and social justice—are really age-old. By breaking down those symbols leading up to modern-day cultural references, I learned to connect my heritage with my present environment and create a vantage point through which people could view African American history in a different light.”

The Pits sculptures

These two sculptures constructed of colored fabric and machine grease were created by Thompson in collaboration with UT sculpture students as part of The Pits.

Since that realization, Thompson has been creating and teaching art in Italy for ten years, seeking to cut across barriers and infuse African American history and Italian art history into all aspects of his work. Although he has shared his unique art form in galleries worldwide, Thompson had always longed to bring his work back to the place that was formative in his development as an artist.

Last fall, Thompson returned to his alma mater as a visiting artist. He was invited to give several lectures and critiques to art and architecture classes and involve students, alumni, and faculty from different departments in creating the elements of his unique multidisciplinary installation and performance piece, The Pits.

Featuring three freestanding sculptures, a chandelier, and a raised stage with a pit orchestra—which included a live jazz performance on opening night, composed and conducted by Thompson’s brother Jason Thompson, a Knoxville composer and graduate of UT’s School of Music—The Pits investigates the political employment of sound, both in the realm of propaganda and protest, as well as the visual hierarchies of the architectural organization of theatre space.

Thompson says he enjoys creating art that forces him to think outside the box. After all, it was his liberal arts education at UT that taught him that. He also benefits greatly from collaborating with other artists and musicians.

“I could not match anywhere the level of student engagement I have had here,” Thompson says. “Without that, the show itself would have never worked.”

The experience of being back on campus ten years after graduating reminded Thompson of how far he had come in his career. He recalled the counsel that had once been given him, which he now shares with his students: “Our artistic voices are always within us, ever constant and ever present, but only through the process of creating work do we give expression and meaning to the voice inside.”

The Pits

Jazz musician and composer Jason Thompson (front, standing), Justin’s brother, conducts the pit orchestra performance that shifts from classical, triumphant marches into the drum and flute sound of black power poets, through folk styles of spiritual praise, and finally into abrasive hip-hop.

Thompson is a 2012 recipient of the Jerome Fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park and has forthcoming solo projects this year including The First Book of Africa at Le Scuderie di Villa D’Attimis in Maniago, Italy, and Meet Me in the Bottoms at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center in San Antonio, Texas. 

–Sara Collins Haywood

To see a video of the live performance at the UT Downtown Gallery on opening night, visit