Lava Thomas discusses her work Requiem for Charleston, which honors the nine men and women who died in a shooting on June 17, 2015, inside the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The artist explains her use of materials, including tambourines, black lambskin, black acrylic disks, and pyrographic calligraphy.
LAVA THOMAS: Hi, my name is Lava Thomas. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to speak about my work, "Requiem for Charleston."
When the news broke of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church, I was working in my studio on another tambourine piece and a series of portraits of my southern ancestors.
The tambourine is an egalitarian instrument. It's an instrument that's found in cultures around the world in religious ceremonies, it's also used as a protest instrument, particularly in protest marches during the Civil Rights Movement. My own relationship with the tambourine is a very personal one. I grew up playing the tambourine in my grandmother's church. My memories of playing the tambourine were ecstatic ones. In the case of "Requiem for Charleston" that sense of ecstasy in worship services was silenced by the events of that tragic day.
The arrangement of the tambourines in "Requiem for Charleston" is a square turned on its side so that the axis of the piece form a cross. I chose to use lambskin, because the lamb is the quintessential symbol of sacrifice and innocence used in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. I chose black lambskin because, of course, the victims of the Charleston Massacre were Black.
I inscribed the names of the victims on lambskin using pyrographic calligraphy where I used a burning tool that's typically used in wood burning crafts and leather crafts to write their names. It was a gesture to burn the names in one's memory, but also to recall the violence during slavery when enslaved people were branded.
I wanted the names to be subtle. I wanted the viewer to have to move very close to the piece to be able to actually read the names and decipher what the names were. I also used black acrylic disks that reflect the viewers faces, so they actually become part of the piece as they're viewing it. I chose to leave some of the tambourines blank in memory of the many men, women, and children who've died in racial violence against churches throughout history.
It's my hope that viewers walk away not only with a sense of grief, but with some sense of shared humanity, that this is not just an act of racial violence against Black people during a Bible study, one summer evening, but that this is in fact a human tragedy that we all share and have some responsibility in preventing.
The other day, my colleague, Libby, and I walked through the museum in search of an artwork we could talk about. And though each artwork has a story to tell, Lava Thomas's "Requiem for Charleston," the artist's response to the church massacre at Mother Emanuel in 2015, spoke the most to us, in a quietly powerful way (if such a thing is possible).