After a period of quiet, no doubt connected to the birth of four lively and rambunctious children, Harris returned to the art world in 1955 with ‘Their Founding Fathers’. The painting, from outside the frame, seems merely a historical scene recreated. It is one any American would be able to recognise in a heartbeat: the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, the inflammatory title (Their, not Our) is a clue to what might be found within. It is truly a remarkable painting to enter.
It is like stepping into a furnace. That is the first thing someone experiences upon entering the painting. The heat embraces you, squeezes you. It sinks deep into your lungs. Before you can even recognise the faces of Washington or Jefferson, you are dying. The music comes soon after. Pushing dangerously on the eardrum, it drowns out any of the Founding Fathers’ conversation. Unmistakably, the words of ‘Go Down Moses’ fill the room. The singer is unidentified. The voice is croaky, dry. You wonder if he’s going to be able to make it to the end of the song. The feeling is only emboldened when you hear the snapping of a whip and the cry of anguish reaching every corner of the room. Coupled with the heat, the music makes the room almost unbearable to stay in. You take a step back, readying to leave. And that is when you notice the floor. The dark, varnished floorboards the Founding Fathers stand on are not wood at all. They’re men. Eyes look up at you. Mouths scream.
It is perhaps impossible to state the impact and outcry that ‘Their Founding Fathers’ had in 1955. There were several genuine attempts to have Harris charged with a litany of crimes, including treason. She had to hire private bodyguards for security, but she remained firm in her work. In later years, she refused to discuss the aftermath, and we can only imagine how frightening such a time must have been with four young children. Her commercial reputation was shot. But while the public recoiled from the painting, some progressive critics raved about it. It was a stinging indictment on America’s founding myth, an expression of African American distaste for how a nation of freedom was built upon the back of slaves. More work came, the brushstrokes of Harris lashing out at centuries of injustice.
There are stories you just love once you’ve finished writing. This is one of them. ‘Inheritance’, found in Issue 124 of Aurealis, is possibly my favourite story which has been published this year. It takes a simple premise, a magical painter who can create art you can walk inside of, and spins out an entire new world through the form of an art history essay.
‘Inheritance’ really sticks to the art essay approach, including footnotes alluding to events in this parallel world where magic exists. There is worldbuilding in this story and there is, of course, magic. But the story is also concerned with politics, family and the fragile nature of memories. I’m always fond of a twist, but I don’t think I have ever landed one at a thematic level as well as I have in this story.
I really urge you to check out Aurealis #124 if for no other reason that this is the story I’ll be shilling when it comes to nominating season for awards. I love this one. I hope you do too.
You can find Aurealis #124 here: