Birdemic. Black Art, Birds, and Symbolism

The black body and experience has been appropriated and manipulated in various ways, and obvious or not it plays its heavy-handed part on culture and psyches. Contemporary American artist Nick Cave’s show, Property, at the Nelson Atkins Museum brings together various found objects that have metaphorical and psychological undertones of racial issues, and while this racial art piece literally spills out a cornucopia of items full of emotions and allegorical value, one icon favoured by the artist is historically full to the beak with symbolism: birds.

Nick Cave. Property 2014. Mixed Media. 233.7 x 6083.3 x 134. 6 cm.

Birds and black lives have been tightly woven together for a long time in black art, black literature, film and more. The bird is a crafty little creature because it can take the form of a plethora of ideas. But when it comes to black Americans it sure runs the gamut. Take a look at Walt Disney’s Dumbo. After a drunken night of debauchery, the goofy, big-eared pachyderm finds himself up a tree surrounded by good-natured, jazzy, jive-talking crows.


A blatant nod to Jim Crow, the birds were supposedly bringing out the best of a stereotype: smooth-talking, confident, playful, and with an absolutely irresistible swagger. But they’re stereotypes nonetheless, pigeon-holing black Americans as spirited post-Harlem Renaissance figures. The movie was made in 1941, so Jim Crow laws were still in full affect at the time, and it’s not lost on us looking back.

Jim Crow - a Topnotch jerk-off.
Jim Crow – a Topnotch jerk-off.

Thanks to Jim Crow, the crow often came to play as a metaphor of blacks in the United States, but birds in all their feathered varieties have made their mark outside of the visual aesthetic form. Lest we forget Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The autobiography detailed the rampant racism afoot during her childhood and throughout her life, but the famous title, the image of the bird, is ripe with symbolism. Mental and physical imprisonment and untouchable visions of freedom… what else can one do, but beat their wings against the bars and curse the heaven’s in futility to a god that doesn’t listen?

In this current atmosphere of racial consciousness, subtle elements of racialised representations and epithets or historically tainted icons can still slip through the cracks. Slithering little snakes of times past that still leave their scent on the present. Or like birds cawing out the quiet yet pervasive existence of metaphors tying black lives to other daily elements. Black art doesn’t have to talk about black issues, but Property surely does, and among the gathering of symbolic figures, birds have earned a prominent place within the collection. So, for Nick Cave, with his treasure trove of imbued objects and metaphorical trinkets, a softly cooing or madly squawking bird encapsulated in glass or ceramic is non-negotiable.

View Nick Cave’s birds and discover other symbolic icons in the Property exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum. The show runs until December 31, 2016.

By Alice Bauer

Art of the 20th Century

Cover image: Nick Cave. Untitled. 2014. Mixed Media


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