Port Elizabeth-based artist Pola Maneli's signature etching-style artwork graces the pages of the recent Juneteenth edition of the New Yorker.
Illustrating an essay by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. - The History That James Baldwin Wanted America to See - the artwork folds hundreds of years of activism into a single continuous moment.
In the foreground, Martin Luther King Jr and James Baldwin stand side-by-side in black suits, while the latter looks over his shoulder. Behind him, two unknown femme activists pull down a statue framed by what appears to be pillars, the signifiers of a certain kind of institution. Of systemic oppression and the unmoving, unchanging tenets that uphold it.
By superimposing these different periods and expressions of activism, the moment becomes one; centuries and decades become instantaneous. All time - past, present and future - are driven by the urgency of now. The image caption reads:
The artist explains that for him, the experiment was in taking an imagined James Baldwin narrative, and contextualising it visually in a contemporary America that is as violent to black people now as it was then.
"As much as the essay is very much told through James Baldwin’s eyes, it’s really about him coming to terms with a virulent strain of an American history that’s been repeated since the conception of the United States of America, and how the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, are a continuation of those same efforts," says Maneli.
"So it seemed important to me to try to figure out how to depict a fictitious narrative that’s so deeply rooted into the foundations of a country, that it’s taken for granted and often confused history. After thinking about it for a bit, I started playing around with the idea of placing figures into an environment made up of this history. Which then became a forest of books, but hopefully still depicted ambiguously enough to possibly pass as trees until closer inspection. Kind of like how our history as we’re taught it seems apolitical until you take closer look at it."
*Visit Pola Maneli's Behance to see more his work.