"[Singleton] was a major force in the world of self-taught art, not only in our community, but nationally," said William Fagaly, curator of African art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. "He wasn't imitating anyone else. He had his own voice, a very strong voice. He addressed African-American issues, race issues, inequality and New Orleans traditions like jazz funerals, which are unique to this city. His pieces are not just powerful but beautiful." (Obituary on August 2, 2007 in the Times-Picayune New Orleans LA. )
Louisiana native Herbert Singleton’s brightly painted woodcarvings are often autobiographical in their picturing of a harsh African-American inner-city life of poverty, drug abuse and violence. However, he also carved biblical stories, Voodoo icons, and scenes of local African-American cultural traditions.
Singleton was the oldest of eight children whose father disappeared when Singleton was around ten years old. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade and then spent most of his time hanging out in the streets of Algiers on New Orleans’ West Bank. He had frequent and traumatic experiences with police; and in view of this and other hostilities in his life, the many scenes of violence and police brutality in his carvings are not surprising. He eventually ended up spending thirteen years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for various drug-related offenses.
In the early 1970s, Singleton began carving the stumps of fallen trees into totems and ceremonial canes. By the 1980s, he was carving and painting scenes onto flat wooden surfaces, using only a hammer, a chisel and household enamels. Over time, his work had also become more complicated and political, and had caught the attention of local art collectors including art dealer Andy Antippas of Barrister's Gallery, who has sold Singleton's works since the early '80s. "His pieces were never placid scenes in the community," said Antippas after Singleton's death. "There was always some reminder of what was going on -- the demolishing of the social fabric he grew up with . . . He was simply reporting the facts, choosing those things as a political cartoonist might."
Singleton's carvings have earned him a following far beyond New Orleans. Most major private folk art collections include his artwork, and his pieces are exhibited in such institutions as The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. And, of course, at HMA.
This post is # 20 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015