During a June 2022 visit to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, I was particularly struck by a Winfred Rembert artwork. I had forgotten the impact learning his story had on me. More on that later. Rembert is not a particularly well-known artist and I rarely come across his work. But I did on that day and have again, thankfully, today.
The High Museum piece which stopped me in my tracks, The Dirty Spoon Cafe (2002), is a bustling juke joint scene, vividly colored, full of figures. The medium is dye on carved and tooled leather. Let that sink in for a minute. I was attracted to the “Jax Ale” sign on the back wall – Jacksonville, FL where I live now – this company long out of business. The “colored only” sign referencing segregation in the South. Winfred Rembert (1945–2021) lived as Deep South as Deep South gets: Cuthbert, GA. I’ve been there too.
Winfred Rembert artworks are deeply personal and visually striking, emerging from his experience growing up in the American South during the Jim Crow era and often celebrates his birthplace of Cuthbert. The National Gallery of Art has acquired its first work by the artist, G.S.P. Reidsville (2013), a striking composition that sparks conversation about US history and engages with other works in the collection, such as paintings by African American artists Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin.
Winfred Rembert survived a near-lynching and seven years in the Georgia prison system, experiences that he documented in a recent memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave (Bloomsbury, 2021), which was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. After his release, and encouraged by his wife, Rembert used leatherworking techniques that he learned from a fellow prisoner to create autobiographical paintings with cut, tooled, and dyed leather.
In G.S.P. Reidsville, Winfred Rembert artworks illustrated his experience of working on a chain gang while serving time at the Georgia State Prison (G.S.P.) in Reidsville. The central panel depicts the chain gang working in front of the prison, while the enlarged surrounding figures collectively form an imposing frame. The pattern of black-and-white uniforms, black-and-orange soil, and red-and-brown sledgehammers creates a work of mesmerizing complexity. With its intricate division of space into numerous panels, the composition conveys to the viewer a sense of being trapped—much as the figures themselves are trapped.