Alabama artist Mose Tolliver was known primarily for his paintings of birds, frogs, flowers, and erotic figures. An exhibition at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky, earlier this spring shed much deserved light on an often overlooked segment of his output—his self portraits.
Tolliver was born one of twelve children to tenant farmers in the Pike road community near Montgomery in the early 1920s. His family like many others at the time, moved from the country to Montgomery in the 1930’s in search of financial opportunity. Mose began work at a young age to support his family, performing general maintenance and repairs and working as a gardener, for which he was known to be especially proficient. After marrying a lifelong friend, Willie Mae Thomas, and serving a short stint in the army, Tolliver began work for the family of Carlton McLendon, first in their home, and later in the McLendon furniture company. In the late 60’s, while working in the furniture company’s warehouse, a crate holding a ton of marble fell off a forklift and crushed both of Tolliver’s legs, leaving him unable to walk without the assistance of crutches for the rest of his life.
Although he had made art prior to the accident, mostly painting and carving tree roots and found materials, he became extraordinarily prolific afterward. Sitting at the foot of his bed, he would paint from morning to night on found surfaces—plywood, wood paneling, furniture, metal, and cardboard—finishing up to ten works daily. The works were hung all over the house and porch, often using soda pop tabs as a mounting apparatus. This mirrors Tolliver’s description of his mother’s house. “One thing I remember about our farmhouse—it was just a shack, but my Mama had pictures all over the walls.” His home began to attract attention from people in the area, and soon he was selling works to passersby, collectors, and eventually museums and galleries.
He quickly developed a unique visual style that remained consistent for nearly forty years. His forms and figures are direct and fantastical, merging graphic immediacy with forms that are alternately whimsical, spiritual, dark, or comedic. Tolliver’s works convey emotion immediately and economically while maintaining extraordinary depth. It’s not entirely clear where Tolliver sourced the inspiration for his various subjects but there are some clues. It has been suggested that his fascination with birds, turtles, and frogs may relate to Yoruba folklore passed on orally by generations of African-Americans, but they are also common animals in the areas surrounding Montgomery. Inspiration for ‘Moose Woman,’ an erotic female figure that Tolliver frequently depicted, was based on an image of Ka, an ancient Egyptian symbol for a soul leaving the body, found in a book in Tolliver’s possession. His method for creating self-portraits, however, seems to be fairly unique, excepting their adherence to a few portraiture tropes, namely, utilizing three-quarters profile and vertical formatting. Facial features are present but strange. Eyes, nostrils, and mouths are usually perfectly round or ovoid. The mouths are consistently open, showing teeth and often exposing a brightly colored tongue, sitting on an oblong, amorphous, almost gelatinous face. The teeth are bared and widely spaced. He paints himself in various colors, rarely in any that resemble flesh, on backgrounds that employ complex color harmonies. Only a few clues exist to indicate that these figures are, in fact, the artist—an ever-present button up shirt, a decorative headpiece that the artist called a head bob, and in early portraits, the presence of a pipe.
The result of Tolliver’s unique conception of self results in a collection of lush and far-reaching psychological self-portraits. He is an expert at conveying mood and emotional states and moves deftly between joy, rage, uneasiness, and tranquility while eschewing any interest in any faithful depiction of concrete visual reality. The images, when presented in tandem, begin to illustrate the fluctuating mental state of one person across time. Tolliver once stated that he painted as a means to “keep his head together.” His self-portraits seem to be especially relevant to this notion.
Tolliver’s work, unlike several black artists recognized for their contributions to portraiture, is seemingly unconcerned with relating to traditional western modes of figural representation. For example, Kerry James Marshall, who was born in nearby Birmingham, focuses a considerable portion of his artistic production to amending Western art history to include the black bodies and identities it so frequently sought (and still seeks) to erase and destroy by appropriating Classic tropes and subjects. The work of Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas often work with similar source material, drawing reference from Matisse, Manet and numerous other artists from the Western canon, and juxtaposing them with Black figures, techniques, and visual language drawn from African and African American art traditions. These works are explicitly anti-colonial and work in the critical role of undoing Western cultural imperialism by questioning and challenging it. Tolliver’s self-portraits work through different means to the same end, establishing and asserting selfhood and humanity outside the bounds set by whiteness. Where Marshall, Wiley, Thomas and others seek to subvert, reinterpret, or challenge, Tolliver chooses to exist beside. It’s important to note that these strategies are complementary rather than fragmented, and work collectively to address issues of representation, identity, and power.
Tolliver was widely shown through the 80’s and early 90’s, garnering solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery and the Montgomery Museum of Art, and has had major institutions purchase his works. Notably, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Folk Art Museum have both acquired self-portraits for their permanent collection despite there being little scholarship or representation of this portion of his production. His work, unfortunately, has not been adequately discussed, analyzed, or exhibited since. The exhibition ‘Self-Portraits of Me’ at Institute 193 made up considerable ground on this front, creating much-needed dialogue surrounding an artist and a segment of his production that is often overlooked.
Written by Paul Michael Brown with additional thanks to Phillip March Jones, Maia Ferrari, and Institute 193.
Institute 193, a project Phillip March Jones began in October 2009, is a non-profit contemporary art space and publisher that collaborates with artists, musicians, and writers to document the cultural production of the modern South. They produce exhibitions, books, and records with the goal of unearthing significant ideas from the region and sharing them with the world. Institute 193 engages and directs, steering and shaping projects into reality without sanitizing the vision of the artist.