Rememory, Johnny Coleman's large-scale installation at the Here Here Gallery on Playhouse Square, imports the countryside into the concrete slabs of the city. Rows of corn, strewn straw, piles of leaves, bales of hay, dried bundles of wildflowers, oak barn planks, rusted tin roofing, cornmeal, and the sound of cicadas and birds all combine to erase the bustle of the street and immerse the viewer in an entirely different landscape. Except for the minimal spotlights, time seems to have slipped back more than a century.
Coleman, a professor at Oberlin College who is gaining a national reputation for installations that address African American history and spirituality, subtitled the work A Response to Beloved: For Nyima. Beloved, of course, is writer Toni Morrison's vivid tale of a runaway slave in Ohio who cannot beat back the past into a tidy corner. Morrison, a Lorain native, commissioned two works from him in response to her famous narrative. Coleman was then further inspired to create Rememory.
He describes it as an "act of prayer for my daughter, Nyima," whose Mediterranean/African name translates from most languages as "sweetness." But in a dialect spoken in the Congo, it also means "child brought from the back to the front."
Readers familiar with Beloved will recognize the connection: A daughter who died violently at age two comes back in a tangible way to reclaim a life cut short. She calls herself Beloved (the words on her tombstone) and is an incarnated memory, brought into the foreground.
Though familiarity with the book adds a layer of richness and detail to this work, it is not absolutely necessary to "decoding" the installation's various elements.
Coleman has well used the gallery's cavernous space, a former bank now devoted to exhibitions by the Oberlin College art faculty. At the very front are two large speakers with the sounds of breakers crashing on a shore -- sounds that represent ancestors crossing the oceans. The front windows are blocked off by temporary walls, and the sights and sounds of the street disappear with the sound of the waves, creating a portal.
Stately, two-story pillars split the space lengthwise, and Coleman has used them to make a connecting series of wooden structures and fencing reminiscent of an old hayloft or corncrib. Rows of standing corn, cut green two months ago, run between the pillars, along with straw and bales of hay. Hidden in the hay are speakers that fill the space with the sound of rural nature. On each pillar is written, "I am still here" -- words that haunt both the book and the space. Adding to the haunted effect are six small, house-like structures made of stacked hay bales, wood, and rusty roofing tin. Situated symmetrically along the walls, they recall the aboveground graves of New Orleans spirit houses or slave shacks. They are mute and have no doors. What they hold inside, they hold forever. Along some of the pillars and on the floor are faint, child-size handprints.
The corn, the pillars, and the small houses lead the eye to the work's centerpiece: a yellow rowboat suspended from the ceiling. Readers will remember that the runaway slave gave birth to her daughter in a boat on the Ohio River. But this is a dream boat, filled with bound bouquets of wildflowers and sunflowers, chamomile, and maple leaves. One giant sunflower head looks human from far off. Mixed among the contents are the artist's own dreadlocks, cut and bound in red cloth, 14 years in the making.
Behind the boat is a dock made of oak planks holding a child's rocking chair. Emanating from beneath the dock is a third soundtrack: that of Coleman's daughter splashing in her bath. Other elements fill the space: a wooden hanger with a bit of lace around its shoulders -- a stand-in for Beloved. Mysterious drawings on the pillars near the boat recall the branding of certain slaves, and four steel-bound boxes contain cornmeal, dried beans, and black-eyed peas.
Coleman risks losing his audience in two ways: by making a piece so personal that it doesn't let the viewer in and by making it so literally evocative of the novel that its elements remain mysterious for anyone who has not read the book. Fortunately, Coleman's work has standing power of its own. By transforming an urban space into a countryside filled with summer heat and memory, he transcends the work's initial inspiration. The ancestors, he seems to say, live among us, inside and out.