Visual Art

Lonnie Holley’s Transcendent Outside Art at MOCA North Miami

Written By Douglas Markowitz
May 26, 2023 at 12:07 PM

Lonnie Holley, “If You Really Knew I and II,” 1980s, chain link gate, scrap metal, fabric, painted street sign, pressure gauge, on display in the exhibition “If You Really Knew” at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

Throughout Alabama artist Lonnie Holley’s show at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, we see faces. They occur in his sandstone sculptures that resemble Shona art from Zimbabwe or Mesoamerican stone carvings. They appear in profile all over his recent spray paintings and monolithic steel sculptures, sometimes in vivid fluorescent colors, other times in monochrome or earth tones, and always in a collage-like profile. It’s something of a fixation for the 73-year-old artist but speaks and moves with the wise, weary demeanor of someone even older, someone who’s lived a lot of life.

“I can’t put the whole body of everything. In my earliest faces, on my sandstones, I tried to,” says Holley. “But I can put us together, by symbolizing the many faces in one particular thing – and giving that particular piece of work a title – of us. No matter how, or where, or when, we are the us of humanity. And I may not be able to say that this is talking about Blackness, or colored-ness, or negro-ness. But I can say I’m talking about us as humanity.”

Lonnie Holley’s “The Spirit of the Misused Ones,” 2019, Steel, on display at MOCA, North Miami. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

To say the least, the life that Holley has led is an unconventional one. He is self-taught as an artist. He declares himself to be one of 27 children from 32 pregnancies. He faced extreme adversity throughout his life as a survivor of childhood poverty and the deprivations of the Jim Crow era. He spent time in the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a notorious juvenile detention facility now likened to a “slave camp.”  His work is informed by those traumatic experiences – the show’s title “If You Really Knew” speaks to the fact that we can never truly understand the complexities of his life. But the exhibition is not defined by it. It speaks to the greater humanity that we can all connect to through art and how we can use it to transcend ourselves.

“If You Really Knew” encompasses a small, but wide snapshot of Holley’s career as an artist, which is defined primarily from his use of salvaged objects, dating back to his earliest works —the sandstone heads that he carved out of discarded slag from local steel mills. Materials such as scrap metal, wood, and plastic are assembled with extreme intentionality.

Artist Lonnie Holley (Photo courtesy of David Raccuglia)

Many works in the show are contemporary meditations on past anti-racist struggles that reverberate into our own time. Works such as “The Water This Time” and “Without Skin,” made from fire hoses wrapped around stacked wooden boxes, recall the hoses that were turned upon Black protesters by police during the civil rights movement. In one of his spray-paintings, silhouetted faces loom over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched over. A similar painting on a canvas made from quilts, titled “What Women Are Afraid to Lose (The Fires on Our Planet),” references the contemporary fight against the anti-abortion movement in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturn by the Supreme Court.

Years ago, at an art workshop I attended taught by Holley, he told the class that everything he uses in his artwork comes from the earth. In a philosophical sense, he’s right: Everything in human civilization eventually comes from one source, our “Mothership.” So, by using these cast-off bits, Holley is forcing us to confront the “stupid” things we’ve done to the planet.

Lonnie Holley, “Without Skin,” 2020, chairs, fire hose and cement nails. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Lonnie Holley/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

“We are blaming so much and leaving so much to blame for other generations to try to figure out,” he says. “Everything that we’ve buried, all in landfills, and all the sneakiness – we snuck away and we took loads and loads of trash, garbage, and debris off the backs of our vehicles and we just put them in what we call sacred, hidden places. We didn’t hide them from nature. Mother Nature still was feeling our way of throwing things away upon her.”

Holley has seen plenty of faces come and go in his time. Some of these were of fellow “outsider” artists following similar, self-taught paths, and a section of the exhibition co-curated by Holley features their work. This includes Miami’s own Purvis Young, as well as Thornton Dial and Mary T. Smith. All of these artists have passed away.

Lonnie Holley, “What Women Are Afraid to Lose (The Fires On Our Planet),” 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Lonnie Holley/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Holley becomes emotional, even shedding tears, when discussing his friendship with them, as well as the late art collector William Arnett, who championed underseen Black artists from the South as founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. In a way, Holley has taken on that mission. He is proof that through art, anybody can be seen, and anything can be made greater than the sum of its parts. We’re all living on the same mothership, after all.

WHAT: “Lonnie Holley: If You Really Knew”

 WHEN:  noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Through Oct. 1.

 WHERE:  Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami.

 COST:  $10, general admission; $5, seniors, students, and visitors identifying as disabled; free for children (12 and under), veterans, North Miami residents and city employees, caregivers accompanying disabled visitors, and museum members.

INFORMATION: (305) 893-6211 or is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music and performing arts news. Sign up for our newsletter and never miss a story.

latest posts

At The Frost Art Museum, Three Artists Make ‘Of W...

Written By Michelle F. Solomon,

At the Frost Art Museum, an immersive meditation on nature by three Miami artists takes on a life of its own.

PAMM’s Newest Show Explores What It Means to Be Chicano...

Written By Douglas Markowitz,

The first thing visitors may wonder about the PAMM exhibition “Xican-a.o.x. Body" is how to say its title.

Three gallery shows look toward tradition, our digital ...

Written By Karen-Janine Cohen,

Galleries and smaller venues have interesting options for the art-hungry this summer.