Coming of Age: Finding Toni Morrison Through the Words of Three Young, American Artists

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This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn’t matter to me what your position is. You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you’ve got. – Toni Morrison

Still reeling from a string of terrible loss, America woke up yesterday morning only to learn that author Toni Morrison, at the age of 88, had passed away in New York City. Morrison was one of the country’s brightest points of light, a creator whose work expands what it means to be black in America. She was a true artist, oracular in power, whose stories have been a balm to a hurt nation. The ripples of her gift can be found in the places we may know to look — in the poetry of Maya Angelou, in the empire of Oprah, in the strength of Angela Davis. But we can also find her in the work of young artists, a generation whose work will carry her legacy well into the next era of America. 

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Let their own words be a reminder, too, of the necessity of art in dark times:

Ja’Tovia Gary, whose experimental video work reclaims formative Black historical narratives — her incredible piece An Ecstatic Experience delves into the subject of resistance and liberation through a mix of archival footage and performance — wrote of the permission that Morrison’s life and work had given her to accept her role as artist. “It’s not that I expected Toni Morrison to live forever I just thought that she would never die. But she is dead today and I am bereft. I have nothing. Morrison is why I think the way I think, she gave me the confidence to step into my reality as a Black girl/Black woman artist.” Morrison, she explained, guided her toward the forces that have shaped her work. “Morrison told the truth about colorism, friendships between Black women, the violence of whiteness, and the healing power of black folks loving each other beyond condition.”

“I’m not ready to speak of her in the past tense… I don’t think I ever will,” considered Nigerian-born visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. “She taught us how creating is an act of commitment — to oneself and to those who don’t think of themselves as worthy or seen. In the doing, we make our own; in her text she made her own and ours — it was so expansive.” Ojih Odutola’s most striking works are portraits recast black skin into something otherworldly. Her drawings are done in black ball point pen, a tool that renders her subjects into luminous, velvety figures who can no longer simply be described as black. 

“Trying to process the words the woman the image and her unrepentant play with language and story,” wrote Kara Walker, a multimedia artist whose body of work unflinchingly evokes the betrayal and violence of America’s history of slavery. She described the way that Morrison’s storytelling has influenced her own. “She wove and spun and told yarns and barbed histories and gave so so much permission for us to do the same. To grab a reader by the wrist like a new friend and drag them into a cloud covered field with her. I learned so much about picture making from Ms. Morrison. And I’m ever grateful for her existence in our lifetime.” She shared a photo of a fast drying clay portrait that she has been working on since learning of her subject’s death, offering one last point: “Give when you feel gutted.”

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