On Lava Thomas's Requiem for Charleston

A photograph of a figure looking at Requiem for Charleston at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The other day, my colleague, Libby, and I walked through the museum in search of an artwork we could talk about. In addition to her work in the museum's technology office, she's an artist and photographer (if you're a reader of Eye Level, you've seen her work!). We chose the third floor that houses modern and contemporary art. 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). The artwork is comprised of a series of mostly black lambskin tambourines into which Thomas has burned the names of the victims using pyrographic calligraphy. Other tambourines are left blank, while a few are made of acrylic. The artwork is mounted on a wall at one end of the gallery, a few steps from a large window, that brings in a bit of natural light. 

This is a detail photograph of a tampering with a name engraved on it as a part of the artwork "Requiem for Charleston."

"This is one that I feel like you could walk past and not know what it’s about," Libby began. "But if you stop for a few seconds you start to see the names emerge. Of course that’s the powerful part of this.  It’s subtle and beautifully done. The shiny [acrylic] ones are at different heights for a child, a teenager, and an adult to see. Everyone who views this can see themselves reflected. The artist put a lot of thought into this. Yes, it’s shaped like a diamond but it’s also a cross which goes back to the church. She put it on tambourines which is powerful, because tambourines normally make sound, but they are silenced, the way these people’s voices are silenced."

We talked about the news and how too often we open our laptops and are confronted by tragedy. But there's something about this piece that takes on larger meaning when you stand in front of it, then get up close and see a bit of your own reflection. "I know I’m supposed to be sad when I see this," Libby continued,  "and I am, but I think it’s kind of hopeful, too. Maybe that’s a crazy thing to say.  The blank ones seem like a call to action: what are you going to do to change it? Is this one going to turn to leather with another name on it, or is it going to change and maybe it’s going to be taken off the wall and you’ll be able to play it. Is it going to be something joyous? What is the future going to be about?"

What will the future look like, and what will it sound like? Music, silence, or something in-between? It was hard to walk away from this one, but eventually we did, leaving the powerful artwork behind, but not the thoughts and emotions it evoked in us. 

  • 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 Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,

    Cynthia Graham Hurd,

    Susie Jackson,

    Ethel Lee Lance,

    The Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor,

    The Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney,

    Tywanza Sanders,

    The Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr.,

    Myra Thompson.

    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.

    Media Series

    Requiem for Charleston is currently on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum 3rd Floor East Wing Lincoln Gallery.