Every day, an eighty-nine year old Malcah Zeldis sits at the dining table of her Tribeca apartment creating vital scenes that fuse archetypal images with colloquial detail.
Her works tend to include a labyrinth of figures in serpentine configurations, realized together in bold, even washes of saturated color. These images are serial variations of Zeldis’ chosen scenes: the stories of Adam and Eve, Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi and George Washington. The stories are compulsively retold, with Zeldis ceaselessly plumbing the depths of historic and biblical tales, conceived in myriad compositions and colorways. In telling and retelling these enduring narratives, Zeldis draws out the common human experiences of remarkable individuals, simultaneously celebrating their extraordinary example while creating an empathetic vision of their everyday lives.
One such individual, who moved Zeldis to paint countless portrayals is Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968.) The compelling figure of Dr. King shook Zeldis’ emotional core when she first encountered his public image as a woman in her thirties. Zeldis herself had experienced racism in America and understood his words regarding the need for an anti-racist society that peacefully sought social equality. Malcah Zeldis was born in a small, working class community in Detroit, which her parents came to as Russian immigrants escaping anti-Semitism in Russia. She recounts how their landlady Mrs. Popovich was shocked to learn of her parents’ Jewish roots: how was it they spoke perfect Russian? And where were their horns?
Though her parents disassociated from their Jewish background in order to assimilate into American society, Zeldis yearned to understand this aspect of her identity, and moved to Israel to live on a kibbutz for nine years after graduating. It is here that she met her husband and began painting; though due to a lack of confidence, it would be another 29 years before she earnestly began life as a painter. On her return to America - this time in Brooklyn - Zeldis was reintergrated into American life just as the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam.
At the heart of this reckoning was a young minister from the Deep South: Martin Luther King Jr. Zeldis describes the emotional grip King’s commanding yet benevolent persona had over her as a young woman, “I fell in love with him, he was such a charismatic, powerful character. He was direct and comprehensible. He appealed to my feelings, I recognized how he spoke of injustice.” It is this kind of intuitive recognition that is at the heart of Zeldis’ work, guiding her choice of subject and handling of color and line. She is an artist who moves with clear instinct, guided by an emotional pull.
Zeldis’ enamor for King would stay with her long after the pastor’s journey of public activism began in 1963 in Alabama, where he spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a catalytic event which led to the beginning of the end of segregation laws. In the nineties, at the suggestion of her daughter Yona, Zeldis chose to put her visions of the exceptional lives of individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr to words, so that they may serve as educational tools for children. The paintings within this exhibition were originally published by Greenwillow Books, with Zeldis’ gouache watercolor paintings serving as illustrations for the words of African American writer Rosemary L. Bray, a celebrated author who has served as an editor for the New York Times Book Review, Essence, Ms., and the Wall Street Journal.
Zeldis’ portrayal of MLK’s life story begins like all biographical tales, with the scene of his birth.
Alongside Bray’s introduction to the actors within this tale is a painting by Zeldis of baby Martin (born Michael) in his childhood home. MLK’s mother Alberta King cradles a beatific Martin. The pair is set within a classic triangular composition that is lucidly balanced by the extended presence of onlookers, grandmother and sister Christine. To view this image is to witness a vision of the Mother and Child that connects Zeldis’ painting to the most enduring icon in Western art history: the matriarch and her newborn son. Like Christ, the ur-child of art - who like MLK would be sacrificed, and whose mourning led to a seismic shift in moral practice - baby Martin is poised even as an infant, one who we know as viewers will live under the Damoclean sword of a future assassination.
We cannot look at this image of the young child in his mother’s arms and not think of the sorrow that is to come. While we acknowledge that this is an image of a remarkable individual, its visceral power is drawn from its ubiquity, it is as common a scene as there is. In an elucidating analysis of images of the Madonna and Child, curator and art historian Alison M. Gingeras relays the concept of devotional images known as Andachtsbilder “whose specific function is to elicit intense emotional experience.” Even in the case of holy visions within Old Master depictions, Gingeras asserts that “The potency of such Mater Dolorosa paintings emanates from their absolute humanity not from their subject’s divine backstory.”
While some may annex Zeldis’ practice within the domain of Folk Art due to her lack of art school training, her constant return to the image of Mother and Child, be it within her MLK series or the many works she has made portraying Lincoln cradling the dead body of his beloved eleven year-old son Willie so he could say goodbye one more time, Zeldis betrays her implicit understanding of the visual narratives which trigger the deepest emotional responses.
As James Elkins writes in his astounding book Pictures and Tears, Medieval portrayals of the Madonna and Child were intended to be more than a mere icon through which to channel one’s reverence in prayer, they were intended to enable the viewer:
To think of yourself as Jesus, or as the Mother of God. You would look at such an image steadily, sometimes for days on end, burrowing deeper and deeper into the mind of the Savior or the Virgin. Finally, you would come to feel what they had felt, and you would see the world, at least in some small part through their eyes. At that point their tears would be your tears – as compunctive doctrine had always said they were.
A similar surge of primordial empathy is felt when viewing Zeldis’ artwork. As Malcah depicts these monumental figures of history in simple, solid tones, sealed in conspicuous outlines, she creates a guileless image, filled with a joy and earnest admiration that is readily apparent. To show MLK as a baby in the arms of his mother, secure in the domestic and surrounded by family, tugs at the primal, filial emotions of all who encounter it.
Zeldis’ paintings of a young Martin bring together cheerful quotidian scenes, such as that of a little Martin on his paper route surrounded by smiling Black and white playmates, only to be followed by extraordinary images of the everyday cruelty Martin and his fellow African Americans experienced on a daily basis. One such harrowing image is a portrayal of young Martin with tears anointing both his eyes. His outstretched arms in an assertion of innocence, as he is confronted by the raised hand of a white woman who had slapped him in front of a department store, claiming Martin had stepped on her foot. These scenes of King’s childhood took place within the neighborhood of ‘Sweet’ Auburn in Atlanta, Georgia.
Just a stone’s throw away from the King home is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King himself would glean his oratory skills in his role as Minister, and realize his message of non-violent resistance. This historic Church connects to our own moment in time, in which racism is still alive and well. At this moment, the future of American political policy is held in abeyance as two Senate seats in Georgia are being challenged, one by the current Ebenezer Baptist Church Senior Pastor, Raphael Warnock, and the second by the Jewish politician Jon Ossoff.
These two candidates have come together in their mutual efforts to secure the same legal equality that King fought for. In King’s own time, Jewish Americans often served as an ally to Black civil rights protestors, marching alongside King from Selma to Montgomery, and forging their own place in America as they fought for the legal rights of others. As Rabbi Marc Shneier expounds in his book Shared Dreams, from which this show takes its title, Jewish American political activists of the fifties and sixties recognized their own history in the oppression of African Americans, and saw their own safety at risk of similar racial hostilities. The Jews who joined the coalition for racial justice did so with a sense of empathy.
As King said during the first American Jewish Congress convention in Florida, “My people were brought in chains. Your people were brought here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
This experience of racial discrimination and a belief in social equality extends to Zeldis. The author and subject of this work brings together two Americans: one of African descent and one Jewish. While their experiences of racism within America should not be compared, it is clear from learning of Zeldis’ own life story that this series of celebratory images is informed by a deep sympathy. This sense of identification informs Zeldis’ reading of King, which like a Biblical narrative, sees the protagonist both as human and divine, a prophet whose outspoken, visionary wisdom leads to his death.
While Zeldis’ paintings of King can be read within the history of illustration, we may also gain an understanding of her work via the art historical precedent of Jacob Lawrence. Like Zeldis, Jacob Lawrence was an artist with a deep social consciousness, whose most revered paintings came in the form of episodic imagery. Both artists tell their inspiring tales in a style that is distinctive and non-illusionistic, allowing for their pedagogic message to puncture the frame, and communicate without the dazzling interruption of optic verisimilitude. As a paragon of narrative imagery, Lawrence personified his political ideals by visually enshrining the life stories of heroic figures Touissant L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown. To read Lawrence’s story of Frederick Douglass alongside that of Zeldis’ Martin Luther King Jr. is to encounter two supremely unique and tender portrayals of two of the most inspiring leaders in the history of Black liberation.
Perhaps the most famous image from Lawrence’s Douglass series is that depicting an ascending Frederick arched over his writing table, dutifully editing the first Black newspaper, The Negro Star (Panel 21.) The scene offers an ideal comparison to Zeldis’ episode of King during his time at Crozer Theological Seminary, where she shows him in his dorm room pondering the words of Henry David Thoreau. The jutting angles of Lawrence’s expressive Cubist forms read in stark contrast to the gentle curvature of Zeldis’ Martin. This juxtaposition continues into the figures’ poses, where the passive contemplation of King meets the frenetic energy of a hard at work Douglass, whose active stance is emphasized by a diagonal composition that charges the sharp angles with a locomotive force. While there is a strong sense of solemnity in the dark umbers of Lawrence’s tempera palette, Zeldis continues to offer us a vision of uplifting, childlike grace in her saturated aqua, canary yellow and vermillion tones. Through their divergent approaches, Lawrence and Zeldis meet in their veneration of these great men.
Tragically, the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life ends like that of numerous other prophetic figures. His assassination is depicted by Zeldis in a Christ-like fashion that suitably bookends the sacred allusions at play in her image of his birth. Outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, we see King cradled in the arms of a crying male figure, while grief stricken onlookers react in horror. King’s supine body looks eternally peaceful, despite the pools of blood which cascade down his side. In this representation of death, King is presented to us as a Pietà, sanctified through death. Once again, Zeldis reveals a visceral connection to the art historic canon as her figures emulates this classic, deeply affecting pose.
But ever the optimist, Zeldis concludes this tale not with King’s death, but with a celebratory image of MLK in a multicultural Garden of Eden, with arms outstretched as he greets us to celebrate the day of his birth. As Rosemary L. Bray writes alongside this vision of harmony, “Today, in every country in which people value freedom, there are those who read and study the work and writing of Martin Luther King Jr., a Black American who became a citizen of the world.”