The portraits return the viewer’s stare, quite a feat since they have no eyes. No lips or nose either. The only individual identifier on the grayscale busts: inmate booking numbers.
Painted rows of Freedom Riders — historic civil rights protestors who weathered violent mobs to challenge Southern segregation laws — were created by Soynika Edwards-Bush. They represent fresh departures in theme and style for the Mobile-area artist, something born from quarantine and her sense of unfolding history.
“I don’t want them to be forgotten because we wouldn’t have Black Lives Matter without that earlier era,” Edwards-Bush said.
The 4-by-5-foot painting in her new civil rights-themed series emerged during the late Rep. John Lewis’ mid-July memorials. She captured him in acrylic, too — his khaki coat lapels visible in the upper left-hand corner.
“Looking at them, tracing every shadow, every stroke, you actually get a connection with the people you’re painting,” Edwards-Bush said. “I would go to bed and I would know they were in there. I just had to get done to move on to something else.”
The heads aren’t altogether devoid. There’s contour, eye sockets shadowed, cheekbones highlighted. The nebulous visages allow viewers to see anyone, someone they know and love, even themselves, in the figures’ places. Edwards-Bush has deliberately grafted outsider art elements into her previously realist portfolio in a search for synthesis and new emotive qualities.
“I used to look at folk art and think, ‘I could do that.’ I didn’t understand it was more of a feeling. Yeah, anybody could make a stick person, but it was what that stick person represented to you,” Edwards-Bush said.
The result is a juncture between artists she idolizes — Kadir Nelson, Betye Saar — and those she’s compared to, like Jacob Lawrence. Sensibilities honed during collegiate training are tempered with the creative instincts and legacy of rural Clarke County ancestors.
“My grandmother on my mother’s side was a quilter. I remember her and my great-aunt and some church women in her front room and she would have quilts hanging up. We’d be running the quilts, helping with patches,” Edwards-Bush said.
Other recent works follow thematic suit. “Take Me to the March, Daddy” shows a Black family beside bustling protestors. Hand-held signs — “I am a man,” “I have rights,” “We are equal” — jut from the crowd. A doll held by the youngest daughter bears an alarming purpose.
“The father told her if the police dogs come after them to just throw the doll so the dogs would get the doll instead,” Edwards-Bush said.
There’s a nod to Gordon Parks’ famous photo of a Black woman and girl outside the Saenger Theatre’s Jim Crow-era “colored entrance.” Edwards-Bush muses on forbears dressed to endure indignity.
“When my Grandma shopped at the boutiques downtown, she cared it was segregated but she wanted to look nice. The women took pride … No matter their background, they just wanted to be presented as classy,” Edwards-Bush said.
Audacity was sprinkled in there, too.
“An aunt told me one day she drank from the White fountain and didn’t care. I think she said that day she was ready to fight,” Edwards-Bush said.
One unsettling piece, “American Ballet,” was inspired by a historic photo. A Black man’s wrists and ankles are tightly bound in chains and pulled behind him. Hoisted aloft, concrete blocks weigh on the small of his back.
Though she cried while painting it, Edwards-Bush was determined to give the tortured man rebirth. In the background is a dance studio barre. A tree beside the figure sprouts pink blooms. Scattered petals flutter down.
“He is bent but giving the tree life. The blossom petals on his head, those are his mother’s tears,” Edwards-Bush said.
The artist is amidst her own renaissance. She delayed lifelong artistic ambitions to raise a family before her eldest daughter advised her, “Mama, you’ve got to start living your life.”
In the three years since then, she’s turned passion to vocation. Her website, threelittlesisters.com, keeps her busy.
“Two-thirds of what I’ve done have been commissions. I have shipped paintings off to L.A., to Detroit, to Pensacola, Birmingham, Texas,” Edwards-Bush said.
The artist has painted murals in Prichard, worked with at-risk youth and organized Mobile’s Black Lives Matter mural for Juneteenth as a member of the new Black Life Arts and Culture Coalition. Her impact will soon exceed local boundaries.
“Two of these are going to hang in Montgomery next year at the Alabama Department of Archives and History,” Edwards-Bush said.
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