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Napoleon Jones-Henderson's new exhibit shows his unflagging spirit and artistic prowess


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William Brangham: Artist Napoleon Jones-Henderson has been working with textiles and other media for more than 50 years, and his spirit and artistic prowess are now on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH recently met Jones-Henderson at his home.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Artist: I have got surely 6,000 or 7,000 books throughout my library here.

Jared Bowen: If ever there was a home built on passion and fueled by art, this is it. Napoleon Jones-Henderson has lived here for 47 years.

It's a living sculpture housing a lifetime of his, not to mention all other manner of artwork. Do

you have different working spaces?

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: No.

Well, yes, each room is a different working space. And I would call it an aesthetic and intellectual resource. That's what this house is for me.

Jared Bowen: And the spirits run deep here.

Jones-Henderson's Greek revival home is known as the Edward Everett Hale House. Hale was an abolitionist who advocated for the education of freed enslaved people.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: I'm sure, as an abolitionist and all of the activities that he was engaged in, people such as Tubman and Douglass, they have all tiptoed through this house.

So, in a way of speaking, I see it as the responsibility of mine to continue that kind of energy.

Jared Bowen: And it looks like you are not somebody who separates your work from life.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: Oh, no, it's all one thing. My work is my life.

Jared Bowen: And has been for half-a-century.

In 1968, Jones-Henderson was one of the founders of the Chicago artists collective AfriCOBRA, or the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. And now at Boston's ICA, the decades of work in textiles he produced according to AfriCOBRA's aesthetic principles, fills this retrospective.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: And that manifesto which drove our work is the elevation of the humanity of African people and to project, if you will, always positive images and works that reflect the beauty and the majesty of African people.

Jeffrey de Blois, Assistant Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art: They asked themselves a question: What is the role of the visual artist as part of the civil rights movement?

Jared Bowen: Jeffrey De Blois is the show's curator, and says Jones-Henderson's work has always been in dialogue with the community, reflecting the culture in language and music.

Jeffrey de Blois: AfriCOBRA outlined that they would use language in a particular way. As you see in Napoleon's work, often, things that come from the community, sayings, to be free, or lyrics drawn from Black music, like from a Stevie Wonder song, at other times, an individual work that's dedicated to a body of work by a musician, like Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts.

So it has various iterations in his work, but there is a sense of rhythm and musicality throughout.

Jared Bowen: And it's woven in. Jones-Henderson studied textile weaving at the Art Institute of Chicago. But, well before that, it was family practice.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: It really starts out with my grandparents and my aunts and all the women in my family, because quilting, and patching the holes in your pants after they wore out, and tucking up a coat sleeve because it was a little bit too big for you when they got passed down.

Jared Bowen: Over decades, he scooped up roll after roll of fabric from New England's once-thriving textile mills. And, in 1974, he came across a room full of reflective yarn once used for flapper dresses, which he still uses.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: The element of the AfriCOBRA aesthetic and philosophy of shine became fully available to me. The aspects that one can find in medieval tapestries and so forth, where they have the gold and silver threads in there, it's the very same thing.

Jared Bowen: And the shine accents a palette of what Jones deliciously calls Kool-Aid colors.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: Because, in the late '60s and early '70s, I know in Chicago in particular, you saw brothers walking around the neighborhood in the street with these wonderful Kool-Aid color outfits on, lime green, the purple, the strawberry, the red.

And so that style is what we saw as an important element to depict in our visual work. And, to be perfectly honest, Kool-Aid is very close to watercolor.

Jared Bowen: The artist's most recent pieces and a project he's been working on for the last 20 years is a series of sculptures titled Requiem For Our Ancestors.

They are shrines to house spirits, and began with his desire to honor the four girls killed when white supremacists bombed Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: Looking at those four little girls and many other Africans who have died or were killed, murdered, and otherwise terrorized, whose passing, their spirits were not able to be honored and held sacred by the people who they were a part of.

Jared Bowen: And the bottom of each shrine, he says, is meant to catch the wind, as derived from a Nigerian tradition.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson: So, the stirring of the air is the stirring of the spirits. And so these structures are spaces for those spirits that have been still uneasy out here since 1619. Coming forward, they have a place to be.

Jared Bowen: From a museum to a home where the spirits always move Napoleon Jones-Henderson.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

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