Over five years, Zoe Leonard sewed together skins of fruit. The artist chose not to preserve the resulting work, Strange Fruit (1992–97), intending for its decay to be on view. Currently on display in Zoe Leonard: Survey, the work hasn’t been seen publicly since 2001. Strange Fruit was made in the mid-1990s, during the AIDS crisis, before any effective treatments for HIV had been developed. Disproportionately affecting the gay community, the disease was heavily stigmatized. It was years into the epidemic before the U.S. government began to support research, treatment, and education about transmission. By 1997, more than sixty thousand New Yorkers had died of HIV/AIDS. The work’s title is taken from the song “Strange Fruit,” first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, whose lyrics describe the lynching of African Americans. Using imagery often associated with the tradition of vanitas painting, and foregrounding the changing state of the work over time, Strange Fruit offers us a contemporary variant on the still life.
On the occasion of the work’s display at the Whitney, on Saturday, March 24, Gregg Bordowitz, Jonah Groeneboer, Katherine Hubbard, Fred Moten, Cameron Rowland, and Christian Scheidemann will reflect on its historical inflections, its relevance and resonance today, and its very specific material existence. We will also livestream the program on Youtube.
[Installation view of Zoe Leonard (b. 1961), Strange Fruit, 1992-97. Orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, and trim wax, dimensions variable. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; purchased with funds contributed by the Dietrich Foundation and with the partial gift of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery, 1998. Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Graydon Wood]
“Instead of growing twisted like a gnarled tree inside myself, I am able to dance out my anger and my frustrations. Yes, I have danced about lynchings, protested in dance against Jim Crow cars and systems which created sharecropping. I have attacked racial prejudices in all forms…” —Pearl Primus, Dance Magazine, November 1968.
Strange Fruit, Volume I is a collection of stories from African American history that exemplifies success in the face of great adversity. This unique graphic anthology offers historical and cultural commentary on nine uncelebrated heroes whose stories are not often found in history books.
Among the stories included are: Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia; Alexander Crummel and the Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America, established in the 1830s; Marshall “Major” Taylor, a.k.a. the Black Cyclone, the first black champion in any sport; and Bass Reeves, the most successful lawman in the Old West.
Written and illustrated by Joel Christian Gill, the diverse art beautifully captures the spirit of each remarkable individual and opens a window into an important part of American history.
That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in the sense that it is violent, and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country. I mean, it really opens up the wound completely raw. When you think of a man hanging from a tree, and to call him ‘strange fruit’ …