Thornton Dial: Strange Fruit

Throughout his prolific career, Thornton Dial engaged with the spectacle of racial violence in America, frequently drawing on his own experience growing up in the Jim Crow South.

By Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Strange Fruit: Channel 42 (2003) by Thornton DialOriginal Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Black bodies in pain

The legacy of state-sanctioned racial violence in America stretches from the earliest slave narratives to the killing of George Floyd and beyond. "Black bodies in pain for public consumption," writes Elizabeth Alexander, "have been an American national spectacle for centuries." 

Joe Louis (1998) by Thornton DialOriginal Source: Private Collection

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Joe Louis, 1998

In Joe Louis, Thornton Dial tells of his nightmarish encounter with police brutality. Driving home from work one night in the 1950s, Dial’s car stalled. While waiting for help to arrive, two white police officers ambushed and beat him nearly to the point of unconsciousness.

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Dial’s self-portrait tumbles across the canvas—a swirling mass of paint and fabric scraps that capture the insanity, disequilibrium, and terror of the moment.

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The contrasting orange and black stripes, usually seen on Dial's iconic tiger cat, here mimic the pattern of a prison uniform and allude to the criminalization of Black men.

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The work's title, Joe Louis, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to having been “knocked out” by the police, and to the name for a kind of “hard times” whiskey that will, like the officers of the law, “knock you out quick.” 

"Tin Man"

In the fall of 1993, just days after the opening of Dial’s first major New York exhibition, CBS aired a 60 Minutes segment titled “Tin Man.” Promising to be a “positive piece” on Dial, the report by Morley Safer instead cast Dial as a naïve innocent, unable to fend for himself in the modern world and in need of saving from the machinations of his white supporters.

"These folks come here from 60 Minutes and saying they want to give respect for the black peoples making art. The television person talk about me in my face like white folks used to talk about their servants in the same room, hurtful talk, like they ain't there."

The sensational story brought Dial's career to a standstill. Ten years after it aired, Dial conjured a response in the form of a vision from the long history of brutality suffered by Blacks at the hands of white authority.

Strange Fruit: Channel 42 (2003) by Thornton DialOriginal Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

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Strange Fruit: Channel 42

Strange Fruit: Channel 42 is a reference to Dial's local CBS station in Birmingham, Alabama that aired the 60 Minutes episode.

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The work features a life-size effigy of Dial strung up from a television antenna, dressed as if to attend his own funeral.

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Framing the scene are Dial’s used spray-paint caps etched with the channel numbers of the local TV stations across the country that broadcast the spectacle of his debasement.

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Below are artificial memorial bouquets from a cemetery.

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As well as pieces of ragged cloth, Dial's frequent symbol for the denigration of Black people. 

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The swatches of cloth are hung in rows, in reference to the haunting lyrics from the song “Strange Fruit,” sung by Billie Holiday, which describes the lynching tradition of the South: “Black body swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Strange Fruit: Alabama Grapes (2003) by Thornton DialSouls Grown Deep Foundation

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Strange Fruit: Alabama Grapes

Dial employs "strange fruit" in another 2003 work, subtitled "Alabama Grapes." Here, he appropriates the grape clusters so ubiquitous in the Western fine-art tradition and recasts them to portray a horrific chapter in American history.

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The rounded shapes of the overripe hanging fruit are formed from the artist’s crushed paint cans in a way that symbolically conflates the history of black oppression and lynching with Dial’s own struggle as a Black artist. 

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Ragged carpet and cut tin, painted green, form the oversize leaves of the drooping grapevine.

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Across the bottom of the canvas are fragments of old wire fence and screening. Bent and twisted into a kind of irregular enclosure, this row of rusty mesh recalls the lines of decrepit fencing in an abandoned grape arbor.

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Within Dial’s symbolic vocabulary, such fenced enclosures also signify both the slave pens of an earlier era and the barriers Black Americans still face.

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