by Aaron Hicks
“The reason why I wear gold: I wear gold for three reasons. One, when Jesus was born, three wise men came from the east, one brought frankincense, one brought myrrh, the other one brought gold. The second reason I wear gold is I can afford it. The third reason I wear it, it’s symbolic of my African heritage. When my ancestors came from Africa, they were shackled by our neck, our wrists and our ankles in steel chains. I’ve turned those steel chains into gold to symbolize the fact that I’m still a slave, only my price tag is higher.” — Mr. T
This past summer much of my time has been spent avoiding my local Covid-19 incubator/nearby beach. Instead, much to my delight, I found myself surfing the web where I stumbled across a moving piece of work.
I discovered and slowly became enthralled with Swedish philosopher and satirical artist Pawel Kuczynski. Upon seeing this piece above titled Descendant I found it to be endearing. This painting depicts a slave, who appears to be of African descent, tied up in bondage as he paints his very chains gold. “Brilliant!” I said to myself. The depiction of a slave doing what many blacks and marginalized continue to do today; make the best out of a terrible situation. As his masters muzzle him up, he works his hands in almost a godly way. As Jesus turned water into wine here, he turns his chains to gold. Dignifying the very system used to demean him.
About a month later after I initially saw the painting, I began reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The book is a classic staple of both African and world literate. Centered around the protagonist Okonkwo, Things Fall Apart deals with themes of culture, change, traditions, family, and generations within a pre-colonial Nigerian tribe.
Okonkwo is a man who is fixated on being tough. He is upset by his son not being aggressive like him, he wishes his daughters were boys, beats his multiple wives, and leads his tribe into war. Even with his reluctance and fear, he makes it known not to show any weakness. Okonkwo’s aggression stems from his parents. His father was a coward and as a result was laughed at and shunned by the village so Okonkwo does everything he can to avoid the same fate. He is shackled in bondage to fear and paints over it with toughness as his gold and relishes it as his identity as he climbs the village’s social ladder.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.
To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.
Okonkwo is chained by his own fear of ostracization and rejection. Okonkwo is very much a slave to himself mentally in this regard as an individual. But much more so Okonkwo is a slave to a society that only values and affirms certain men. Rather than escaping this bondage by rejecting this system he paints it gold and gleams with a false sense of pride in his masculinity and toughness so that he will be valued.
After I finished the book, I revisited the painting. The colors, image, art style all remained the same, but my eyes saw a completely different work. More than anything this piece looks like a clone of the adage of the glass. Is it half empty or half full? To me it’s half empty, at least now after reading Things Fall Apart. A more somber viewing has replaced my former lighthearted one.
One thing that I noticed for this first time this second viewing was the background color. At first the golden coat draws you in with stars twinkling about at the top. But as your eyes move downward the stars begin to fade while the luster turns into a shade reminiscent to rust. An illusion of brightness sits on top of a dull reality. I believe that Pawel Kuczynski is not celebrating anything here. He is condemning and lampooning the idea of insincere and fake solutions to problems by both society and the people present within them.
In the wake of this new movement arisen from the deaths of men like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and countless others due to police violence, I begin to think about the systems, ideas, and institutions in place in America that have served as shining shackles for decades. It makes me ponder at how and why systematic chains of oppression have not been removed but only glossed over as the weak paint now crackles to reveal yet again what’s underneath.
Aaron Hicks is writer from Wilmington, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Carolina University with a Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurship and a minor in English.