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Robert Colescott (1925-2009)
Robert Colescott (1925-2009)

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Interview

Details
Robert Colescott (1925-2009)
Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Interview
signed and dated 'R. Colescott 86' (lower left); signed again, inscribed, titled and dated again 'KNOWLEDGE OF THE PAST IS THE KEY TO THE FUTURE: "INTERVIEW" © Robert Colescott Oct. 1986 Tucson, AZ.' (on the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas
84 x 72 in. (213.3 x 182.8 cm.)
Painted in 1986.
Provenance
Semaphore Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Private collection, New York, by descent from the above
Private collection, West Coast
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 4 March 2016, lot 237
Private collection, Texas
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

A masterful achievement of Robert Colescott’s unique signature style, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Interview is a key example from a series of paintings about the politics of representation that the artist produced in the 1980s. Colescott’s identity, derived from a mixture of African American, Native American and European heritage, is a central tenet of his practice, and imbues his art with layered meanings rife for decoding. At the center of the composition, an interview occurs between two unlikely characters – a fully suited skeleton and a white male head symbolizing God, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit floating behind. In history painting, a skeleton or skull often acts a memento mori, a symbol and reminder of the inevitability of death. In this case, the skeleton references the souls lost during slavery, as well as the loss of life of indigenous peoples to the United States when diseases were introduced by colonizers. The reference to the American colonies is reified by the pile of corn behind the skeletal reporter, the “golden grain” of the Native Americans. But, the central reporter is oblivious to the actual protagonists of the composition, the indigenous family featured on the right of the composition, unable to have a voice in their own history. The title, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future, refers to a statement by Charles C. Seifert, the African-American Historian, who said: “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” (C. Seifert, The Negros or Ethiopians Contribution to Art, Michigan, 1938, p. 5). Colescott, keen to ensure we are aware of our history (albeit fraught), unearths the problematic legacy of slavery and colonialism in the United States, urging the viewer to directly confront our past and contemplate our future. Another painting from the series, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Some Afterthoughts on Discovery, 1986, is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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