'Requiem for Mother Emanuel': Artist hopes his tribute to Emanuel 9 reflects hope in midst of loss

Jun 14, 2016

In keeping with his roots in a holiness church, artist Leo Twiggs has a testimony he wants to share with the world. It speaks of the range of emotions he felt following the horrific mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston nearly a year ago.

Twiggs lets his art do the talking for him, though, through his use of batik, an ancient technique of manual wax-resistant dyeing applied to whole cloth. He spent many long nights over the course of several weeks manually dyeing and dipping fabric pieces to achieve a texturally rich and deep-toned series titled “Requiem for Mother Emanuel.”

Nine people, including Senior Pastor and state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, were killed by a gunman during a Bible study session at Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.

The tragedy gained worldwide attention and emotionally moved Twiggs, who said his images for “Requiem for Mother Emanuel” did not actually begin as a series.

“The whole idea behind the Mother Emanuel series did not come as a series. I did not think of it as a series. I was doing one painting and that painting was in reaction right after the event happened,” the artist said.

His body of work will be exhibited at The City Gallery in Charleston from Tuesday, June 21 to Sunday, July 31. The City of Charleston is dedicating the entire first floor of the gallery for the display of Twiggs’ work. The paintings will be accompanied by a seven-minute video in which he talks about the nine images and his inspiration behind each.

The “Requiem for Mother Emanuel” exhibition is part of a nine-day remembrance the City of Charleston is hosting to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the church shooting.

“During that period, the exhibit will be open to the members of the church and survivors of the victims for private viewing,” Twiggs said.

‘This is about nine people that perished’

A target and the number nine are symbols that appear in the series, along with the Confederate flag, a symbol that Twiggs has used in his paintings since the 1970s.

“I go all the way back with both the target and the Confederate flag as part of the images in my work. I did a whole series on ‘Targeted Man,’ and I did a series using the Confederate flag,” he said.

The artist said he felt the Emanuel AME Church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel, was the target for such horrible violence because of its rich history. Founded in 1816, Emanuel AME is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Southern United States and is the first independent black denomination in the United States.

“Denmark Vesey was a pastor of the church at one time. Charleston probably has more churches than any other single place in South Carolina, but he picked that church because of what it meant to black people,” Twiggs said. “So my first image was this target and this silhouette of the church.”

He said he chose not to reproduce an actual picture of the Emanuel AME Church in the first image of the series, whose pieces were all done in batik on cotton.

“One of the things I didn’t want to do as an artist is to just put a picture of the church because when you paint and put just a picture of the church, you tie everything to a single church, when it’s really about churches. So what I did was create a kind of symbol of a church, a kind of imagery that could be any church. That piece was done in 2015 right after the horrible incident,” he said.

The second image was actually started in 2015 and finished this year.

“I used the flag and the number nine because that’s what it was all about. And it was at night, so I tried to suggest a kind of dark sky, said Twiggs, whose third piece also contained a blood-stained Confederate flag with nine X’s at the bottom of it.

Twiggs said the flag became more like a stain on the starkly white church in his fourth painting.

“I just saw what happened at Emanuel as a stain on this white church. Here is this blood stain on this white church that was really a metaphor for a white garment that somebody’s wearing and gets a terrible stain on. So the flag is there, but it becomes like a blood stain,” he said, noting that the nine multi-colored X‘s at the bottom of the flag represented the nine shooting victims.

“An X means somebody has passed, or that somebody is no longer with us. I don’t know why I used the different colors. I suspect it’s because I wanted to match up with the colors on the flag, but I think it also kind of represents that these were different people,” Twiggs said. “Some were young, some were old.”

He said each of his paintings is a testimony to the nine slain church members.

“They are single paintings that live on their own right. It’s like a testimony,” Twiggs said.

The Confederate flag become a recurring symbol in Twiggs’ “Requiem” series, and it is splashed across the surface of the church. It eventually morphs into a cross on a blood-stained background and then changes into a cross with the red drained from it.

Twiggs said there is somewhat of a transition made in the fifth painting, when the Confederate flag becomes “smaller and less prominent.”

“In this one, the blood of the flag has completely disappeared. … This is the flag, but there are nine stars and the flag is now morphing into a cross,” he said. “This is patterned fabric. This is the only one where I’ve used patterned fabric on it.”

Twiggs said he took a tour of the inside of the church, images of which are included in his sixth piece.

“I had not been inside the church in years. My art teacher at Claflin, Arthur Rose, was a member of that church. So I had been to that church early on, but it had been a long time. I just felt if I was going to do a Mother Emanuel series, I had to see where they died,” he said.

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