Way To Go
Richard A. Long's Fabulous Send Off
If Tina Dunkley had been in charge of celestial arrangements, the sweet chariot swinging low to carry Richard A. Long home would have been in the form of his 1974 yellow Datsun. Her longtime friend and colleague did pass on peacefully of natural causes at age 86, at his home and, in the African tradition of honoring the deceased one year after their transition — Long died on January 4, 2013 — Dunkley’s vision was realized in Ascending Yellow, a memorial exhibition and art auction at the Clark Atlanta University (CAU) ART Galleries. The exhibition runs through April 11, 2014.
Tina Dunkley and the noted cultural historian Richard A. Long had had a close association since she completed her master’s thesis under his direction in 1980, and through her work as director of the CAU Art Galleries and Long’s service as its advisor. “Dr. Long's steadfast devotion to the preservation of the permanent collection made him an invaluable supporter until his death,” she says.
A fantasy coffin in the form of Richard Long's 1974 yellow B210 Datsun was created in Accra, Ghana and unveiled at the CAU Art Galleries on Long’s birthday, Sunday, February 9, 2014.
Dunkley’s idea to commission the coffin stems from her fascination with the form which she first witnessed during an exhibition of Ghanaian fantasy coffins during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. “I thought that it was the most beautiful way to honor the deceased and to remove the morbidity,” she says and notes that the only similar U.S. tradition is the New Orleans second line celebration.
Ghanaians who commission the custom coffins believe that death is a passage to a spiritual realm where the ancestors oversee earthy affairs and provide protection. To give their deceased a grand send off to this realm, the vessel of passage — the coffin — is designed to symbolize some notable aspect or favorite object of the deceased.
"Reminded of the Ghanaian tradition as she watched a March 2013 CBS "Sunday Morning feature on the fantasy coffins, Dunkley decided she would commission one for Long.
She had often enjoyed teasing Long about his car. “I loved the way he was so pragmatic and frugal” in many ways including with his car, but generous in other ways, she recalls. “He traveled first class to every global destination, gave money to causes and institutions” but never was inclined to buy things that symbolized status or even a new car. “The fresh coat of yellow paint was only thing he did to that car.” Whenever there was posh event in Atlanta — and Long was always invited to those, Dunkley notes — she delighted in seeing Long’s brightly-painted, old compact car parked “in between the Bentleys and the Benzs.”
During a tour of West African slave fortresses Atlanta art patrons Jim and Marsha Meadows heard about the plan to commission the coffin from High Museum curator of African Art Carol Thompson and offered to provide funding. The couple knew Long because they were all active members of the High Museum’s Friends of African Art group.
The High Museum further figures into this story because in 2001 Richard Long donated a yellow-toned, oil portrait of himself by Beauford Delaney to the Museum in 2001. The donation led to The Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow exhibition at the High which featured the painting and was curated by a former student of Long’s, art historian Richard J. Powell of Duke University. The exhibition catalogue included the title poem of Long’s volume, Ascending and Other Poems —a poem that Long had dedicated to Delaney.
For the title of the memorial program, Dunkley put the “Ascending” poem title and the “yellow” theme together, evoking a vision of Long rising to heavenly repose in his beloved, yellow ride.
In doing research for the program, Dunkley learned that the psychological meaning of color yellow encompassed much more than just its familiar connotation of sunny optimism and cheer. “Yellow means acquisition of knowledge and being inquisitive – impatient, pragmatic – Richard was all of these descriptors! That was his aura,” Dunkley says. She also noted that that his complexion “exuded a yellow hue.”
Long also was fond of wearing tones of yellow or gold, and gave yellow scarves to Dunkley. Yellow, yellow, luminous yellow for days, some of which may have been a boost to Dunkley during the difficult and challenging work producing an art auction to benefit Clark’s collection that she says Long arranged donations to and led a charge to save. As a result of Long’s advice, James Baldwin bequeathed to CAU Galleries several of his Beauford Delaney paintings, a painting by Miles Davis, and works by European artists who were among his circle of friends.
The skeleton-staffed CAU Galleries hadn’t done any fundraising in many years prior to the memorial but, in the spirit of yellow, optimistically issued the call for artists to participate in a yellow-themed exhibition and auction in celebration of Richard Long’s life. Thirty-seven artists responded. They had the option of donating from 40% to 100% of revenue from the sales of their work to the Galleries.
The Ascending Yellow memorial also included the reading of Long’s “Ascending” poem by actress Lisa Arrindell Anderson, and because, according to Dunkley, “Richard and Alvin Ailey were very close,” a dance performance by former Ailey Company dancer, April Berry.
“What I did was insane, scheduling two major events three weeks apart.” Dunkley reflected off the record but the statement appears here on the record as a testament of her diligence and persistence. She explained that fundraisers require lots of lead time and that concurrently she had been working on the installation of James Pate’s KKK Series (Kin Killing Kin) exhibition at the Galleries and public programming for this show which portrays the epidemic of black-on-black violence. And if that were not enough, Dunkley spontaneously gave in to a pop up installation, The Huff and Puff Over Sheila Pree Bright’s Plastic Body Series, in the midst of the two events.
Dunkley’s mellow (yellow) humor — she was “in recovery” during her interview for this article — has endeared her to local and national art communities and, no doubt, was a factor in the artists’ enthusiastic response to her auction call. Her far reaching commitment to her work and the art was recognized in February 2013 when she received the lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus of Art. She joined an illustrious cohort of awardees including Selma Burke, Alice Neel, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O'Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Linda Nochlin, Yoko Ono, and Wilhelmina Holladay, founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Achievements leading up to the award included Dunkley’s massive, 2012 In The Eye of the Muses exhibition and book which commemorated the 70th anniversary of the formation of the CAU collection and the 60th year anniversary of the unveiling of Hale Woodruff’s mural, The Art of the Negro, in Trevor Arnett Hall where the Galleries are located.
Richard A. Long’s fantasy coffin was mounted on a base and is on long-term view at the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries on the second floor of Trevor Arnett Hall. Hours: Tuesday-Friday 11:00-4:00 P.M.
The yellow, the green. The white paper
catching, refracting the sunlight
The palette fills with light and love.
The spirit lifts, rises.
The worlds floats, ascends.
— from “Ascending” a poem by Richard A. Long dedicated to Beauford Delaney
Tina Dunkley wishes to acknowledge the contributions of the CAU Galleries staff curtorial assistant, Alvelyn Sanders; student assistants; and "the most generous" Host Committee members. "For without them, virtually nothing would have materialized in the manner that it did," she says.
Ascending Yellow participating artists: Jim Alexander, Steve R. Allen, Amalia Amaki, Zachariah Anderson, Marquetta Bell Johnson, Lillian Blades, Lucinda Bunnen, Terrell Clark, Willie Cole, Louis Delsarte, John Dowell, Tina Dunkley, Art Eubanks, Robin Holder, Stefanie Jackson, Yusef Johnson, Judy Morris Lampert, Arturo Lindsay, Lynn Marshall Linnemeier, Susan Loftin, Charlie Lucas, Jennifer Mack, Eugene James Martin, Lev Mills, Eleanor Neal, Mario Petrirena, Sheila Pree-Bright, the late John Riddle, Susan Ross, Robb Simmons, Kevin Sipp, Leslie Smith III, Steve Sachs, and Freddie Styles.
Of related interest: the "Long Reach of Negritude, Baldwin, Richard A. Long & Choko" section of the "Great Gathering in Paris" article. The section is near the end of the article.