Melvin Edwards was born in 1937 in Houston, USA, and lives and works just outside New York City, USA, and Dakar, Senegal. Edwards is recognised as a pioneer in contemporary African-American art and sculpture. Edward’s art career began in southern California with a solo exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1965. In 1993 the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, organised the first retrospective in Edwards’ career documenting their thirty-year artistic development. In 2015 the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas hosted Edwards’ second retrospective, featuring work from the early 1960s to the present, titled Five Decades.
Houston-born and New York based Melvin Edwards’s Lynch Fragments series was initiated in the 1960s in response to racial violence in the United States. (1) They continue to add works to the series today. Assembled from an assortment of metal objects – pipes, padlocks, steel rebar – and welded together, Edwards’s fragments are anthropomorphic, but never figurative. More interested in symbolism than representation, the artist’s work could equally be appreciated for its expressiveness as much as its craftsmanship.
Double Gong (1989) is a wall sculpture similar in scale to a typical bronze bust. Within that modest form is a dense collision of parts. A chain link, suspended from the rectangular wall mount, impales the head of a piece of bulbous steel with an iron stake attached. On the end of the chain, a type of metal clip dangles freely but remains still. The arc marks – ribbed, foamy metal traces left by the welding arc machine – that hold it all together are rough. Untidy but not clumsy, the marks make this final assemblage look like the quiet result of an aggressive and laborious process.
Edwards learned to weld while studying at the University of Southern California in the 1960s, and blacksmithing has since been an integral part of their artistic practice. On the verso of Double Gong, Melvin has inscribed M.E., again in arc marks, giving the sculpture a sort of keloid scar that forms the artist’s initials. While these scars are eerily reminiscent to the way that African-American enslaved persons would have been branded on various parts of their bodies, by owners and traders, the marks also suggest the showmanship and workmanship of a blacksmith who takes pride in their craft. The productive possibility of this double meaning could be an entry point into seeing how Edwards’ might not be choosing to symbolise love or violence, but rather both.
Although the Lynch Fragments suggest the result of a violent interaction, Edwards’ tendency to title the works after places or events, such as Ethiopia (2002) or Festac 77 Lagos Reunion (1985), reveal an element of affection, nostalgia and care. The small metal beasts recall violence that challenges, but also serve as dedications to that which sustains and nourishes in spite of an unjust world.
1 Ursula Davila-Villa, ed. Melvin Edwards:: In Oklahoma April 13–May 20, 2017 Publication ©2017 (New York: Alexander Gray Associates, LLC, 2017)