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.
He was particularly moved by a massive stained glass window that was located near the church’s altar. He included its likeness in his sixth image, along with the Confederate flag’s continued morph into the image of a white cross.
“I wanted to get the feeling of what was inside the church. What’s amazing is one side of the church is starkly white, but inside it’s warm and has got all of that old wood. It looks historic,” said the artist, whose sixth image also includes the Palmetto Tree and crescent moon, symbols from the state flag.
Twiggs includes all three symbols of the Confederate flag, the target and the number nine in his seventh image, along with crosses representing the souls of the victims.
“I look at it and think of it as a summary because I used the flag, but the bloodiness is now gone. I used the target as I did on the first one, and then the number nine, which I also used in the second one. So kind of all the things that are incorporated in those paintings are in this particular piece,” he said. “And, of course, you have the crosses of the souls of these people rising and the moon.”
He intended for the title of the series to reflect hope in the midst of great loss, the artist said.
“The reason this is called ‘Requiem’ is because this isn’t about the living. This is about the nine people that perished in this horrible, horrific incident. Nobody knows what happens to you when you die but in the Christian religion, you are transformed from a physical being to a spiritual being,” he said.
“And I try to represent that spiritual being with the cross because the way Christians get to their final destination is the way Christ went to his destination — through the cross. So these people obviously were Christians, and for them that is the journey I try to portray them taking — that rising up from their church to another place,” Twiggs said.
That image is vividly shown in his eighth painting, where a white line of demarcation separates the church from the heavenly place that Christians seek to reach in the afterlife. A darker blue suggests the horror the victims endured on earth, but a lighter blue emanates from above.
“That’s where the sky is bluer, and in there I have a lot of crosses because we call our funerals ‘home going ceremonies.’ We’re going to meet our relatives who went on before us; they’re all up there waiting for us. So when I’m doing this, I’m very steeped in African-American culture and traditions,” Twiggs said.
Deciding how to end the series with his final painting was something the artist struggled with. He thought about how the church was located less than a mile and a half from where Africans were brought to America as slaves and less than a mile from where the Civil War began.
“Mother Emanuel is less than a mile from where Africans were brought ashore and sold on Market Street in Charleston. Mother Emanuel was in a very unique place and is a very unique place. It’s the place where Denmark Vesey tried for freedom and was killed.
“I thought about the history of Mother Emanuel and I also thought that (what happened at) Mother Emanuel is not unique to us. It happened in Birmingham with four little girls. It happened in North Charleston when the guy was shot in the back. … This is the stony road we trod,” Twiggs said, referring to the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the National Black Anthem.
It was another line from that song, however, that kept coming back to him and was included in his ninth piece: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”
“Those two lines explain Mother Emanuel perfectly,” Twiggs said. “If the victims could speak, what would they say? They have said, ‘We have come treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered,’ and this is what has happened to many of us.”
“So what I wanted in this last one is to kind of sum up and give people the perspective of what Mother Emanuel really means to us as African-Americans. It’s a place that speaks about our journey, the pain of a journey that is repeated over and over when you look at our history,” he said.
In the final image, a number nine sits above the lines from Weldon’s song.
‘Our state’s finest hour’
Twiggs said the seven-minute video that accompanies his series was developed with a $10,000 donation from a group of art patrons in Greenville who have purchased his work over the years. The video was produced by Greenville-based Sailwind Pictures.
Twiggs said the director of Greenville’s Hampton III Gallery gave the donors an opportunity to preview his works and see the video during a special reception. The gallery is the state’s longest operating art gallery in which Twiggs has been a member since 1972.
“It was really a great afternoon. Once you see the video and these works, it gives a whole new perspective of what I was doing,” he said.
“One of the most significant (art) collections in South Carolina decided to buy all three paintings and to donate them to two national museums and to keep one that so that it could be loaned to museums in our state,” he said. “That, to me, was nice.”
Another donor funded the printing of 5,000 brochures containing images of the paintings and an essay, all of which will be available at Twiggs’ exhibit at The City Gallery in Charleston.
“If you take the brochure, the exhibit could live forever. I’m so proud of that,” the artist said, noting that an artist’s reception is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, July 8 at The City Gallery following the nine-day anniversary commemoration of the church shooting.
“We’re not doing anything formal when they’re having the anniversary because that’s a quiet time. When they’re having the anniversary, the only thing is that the families of the victims will know that the works are in the gallery,” Twiggs said.
South Carolina ETV also filmed a documentary about the creation of Twiggs’ paintings on June 2. Beryl Dakers, who retired from ETV but continues to work on special projects, is a long-time friend of Twiggs, and she filmed the documentary.
“I know Beryl is also supposed to be going to Charleston to do something with Mother Emanuel. I think she’s going to do some interviews and everything else and then feature the documentary with that. So she’s putting together this documentary,” Twiggs said, noting that the documentary will likely air following the nine-day remembrance,
Bradley Glenn, an award-winning documentary producer from California, is also working on a 60- to 80-minute documentary about Twiggs’ work called “Leo Twiggs: Crossing Over.”
“He plans to bring a crew to Charleston to cover the Emanuel event. So I’ll probably be going down there for that. His documentary is not just about Mother Emanuel,” but he wants it to be a part of it, Twiggs said.
“He (Glenn) said, “I want to get you with some of the survivors.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to wait and see whether they want to do that.’ So he’s going to be in and out of town. It’s going to be interesting to see what he does,” the artist said.
Twiggs said what he hopes to do is contribute to the healing of the community in the aftermath of the church shooting with his works of art.
“When an event happens, there are people who want to write about it, there are people who want to talk about it and there are people who want to paint about it. I said in the video that after Mother Emanuel, it was our state’s finest hour because for the first time that I can remember, we came together as one,” he said.
“It was not about the color of our skin or status, but as one human being in relation to another human being. And, if anything, I hope that the paintings record that moment so that when people look at the paintings, they could say that a tragic thing happened at a church, but what happened as a result of that thing was something that had not happened in our state before.”