Know Pressure: 
Treading the Aesthetic Waters of Thornton Dial, Joe Minter, Lonnie Holley, and Ronald Locket in Post-Civil Rights Alabama

Published June 17th 2024
By Danelle Bernten

Auburn University’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art’s current exhibition entitled Black Codes: Art and Post-Civil Rights Alabama is on view from January 23, 2024 through July 7, 2024. It tackles the heavy words and actions of racism, segregation, and anti-black violence with the liberating visual language of four Black Southern artists: Thornton Dial (1928-2016), Lonnie Holley (1950-), Ronald Lockett (1965-1998), and Joe Minter (1943). Guest curator, Dr. Alessa Pitchamarn Alexander of Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University assembles thirty artworks alternating Black atmospheric spaces of progress and regress. Black Codes transforms the bitter letters of unspoken and written Southern laws into landscapes of risk and prospect.

All four American artists hail from the Birmingham-Bessemer School in Alabama and either witnessed first-hand or experienced the lingering effects of racial segregation and discrimination. Divided into three sections aptly named, ‘Hard, Brutal, and Unbelievable Facts,’ ‘Global Perspectives,’ and ‘Personal Mythologies,’ the artists engage in a visual discussion and display of the internal and external strife faced by Southern Blacks, their personal setbacks and hardships, and universal languages of minority resilience. In Lonnie Holley’s 1995 Pressure from the Burn, his wrapping of fire hoses utilized against Civil Rights protestors of all ages is set against the shape of a delipidated wooden cross. It highlights the pressure, intimidations, and fears faced by Black Southerners seeking full legal and cultural equality in the 1960s. What is also ironed out is the lack of freedom to worship Jesus safely in several Black Churches; a deadly target site for racist extremists in the 1960s in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, and even today in states such as South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and North Carolina-pushing the United States federal government into action. The Church Arson Prevention Act was sponsored by Illinois Republican, Henry Hyde and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Holley’s cross demonstrates that Black churches pressed on as did marchers.  

Installation image featuring Lonnie Holley’s Pressure from the Burn, pictured right, in Black Codes: Art and Post-Civil Rights Alabama. Photo by Mike Cortez
Photo courtesy of The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University

Holley’s loose loop around the missing INRI (King of the Jews) sign and neck of the cross also conjures allusions to the insidious practice of lynching primarily against Black males in the South during Jim Crow(1). But Holley’s genius is shown not only in the ways that he merges faith and fear but in the ways that he concretizes his desire to tap into his ancestral past. “Standing in that water as it covered my head, trying to imagine what it was like for those that was on the ship, made the ocean seem more valuable to me than just a place to swim”(2). Holley’s reference to the transatlantic slave trade can be seen in his employment of fire hose like rope; the labor of winding rope and/or metal shackles around the hands and feet of slave passengers aboard wooden ships bears down on us as well. His ingenious looping of fire hose around the planks with nails-nails the point home, 1865 liberated African-Americans remained tied to practices and legislation that kept them in ongoing states of crucifixion.  

In Thornton Dial’s Out of Control (2003), we see his empathetic solidarity with all victims of California wildfires. Yet, we also travel back in time during this exhibition to the heat faced by Civil Rights protestors and Black families on their lawns with burning Ku Klux Klan crosses and numerous bombings. From police beatings and arrests to flames rising up in racial hatred in front of their homes and within them, Dial captures simmering and explosive racial tensions. His layering of tin, wood, string, soil, oil, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood creates a central hearth of intense fire at its core and metallic and stringlike clouds of smoke above. 

Installation image featuring Thornton Dials’ Out of Control, pictured right, in Black Codes: Art and Post-Civil Rights Alabama. Photo by Mike Cortez
Photo courtesy of The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University

In its abstraction, we envision the families fleeing the catastrophic heat of California wildfires and simultaneously the Black families affected by the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts of home and church bombings, cross burnings, and US-American political assassinations of their leaders during the 1960s. In one way, Dial has created a lattice of hope in the cascading steps of a fireman’s ladder. But we cannot avoid the despair and pain of the breaking foundations of the bombed home or church. In this piece, Dial’s two and three-dimensional applications of paint and object into horizontal horrors of arson and bomb violence speaks to perennial global concerns regarding climate change, civil unrest, and the horrors of war.   

In Fever Within (1995), Ronald Lockett, younger cousin of Thornton Dial, a subtle kind of pained heat emerges. An African-American woman sits in profile against a sparse yellow background. While art historians and museum professionals believe the sitter could be the figure who infected him with the HIV virus, Lockett’s use of tin, colored pencil, nails, and wood forges a figure of local and international disenfranchisement; the HIV/AIDS patient(3). By 1997, Lockett had succumbed to his disease and AIDS related pneumonia but left a mostly empty canvas full of ethical and moral impact. The anonymous body is outlined and riddled with metal nails and holes, signaling a type of hammered target of blame for harboring and spreading the disease.  The HIV/AIDS patient’s body is one pierced with accusations, liability, and onus in the history of American medicine and 1980s political rhetoric. 

   Ronald Lockett (American, 1965-1998), Fever Within, Found metal and nails, Estate of William Sidney Arnett

The various shades of peeling brown and yellow skin of the figure point to a Black female with small breasts in the artist’s Alabama studio, but also to any Black sufferer of the ravages of the HIV/AIDS crisis globally. The semi-bald head gives the figure a look of advanced sickness and treatment implying that tufts of hair have already fallen or been shaved off. Her embedded legs and blurry feet within the canvas provide a feeling of entrapment while dotted with invisible and visible strikes. Lockett’s choice of deteriorating yellow and bronze colors bring us to the shores of Africa, not only to Alabama. We envision the numerous deaths caused by HIV/AIDS in Africa but also to an earlier recorded pestilence; the mosquito-driven yellow fever virus found primarily in tropical regions of central Africa and South America. Lockett’s Black body endures an endless cycle of biological violence from deadly parasites to infected needles in blighted, urban communities around the world. From Tuskegee’s syphilis to COVID-19, Lockett’s beating of the Black body into endangered shape duplicates the continuous effects of Black poverty and illness on a vulnerable form.    

Lastly, Joe Minter’s Insects’ Footprints in the Snow (2022), displays a vibrancy of color and simple organic shapes of insects. However, its Pan-African aesthetic is anything but simple. In a different exhibition review at the MARCH Gallery in New York, artist and writer, Christina L. Schmitt, astutely remarked that Minter’s insects reflect the forced captivity and labor of Africans on American soil and an optical longing to fly away and return to original African migratory patterns or rhythms(4). 

Installation image featuring Joe Minter’s Insects Footprint on the Snow, pictured left, in Black Codes: Art and Post-Civil Rights Alabama. Photo by Mike Cortez
Photo courtesy of The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University

But I suggest that the large insect and the remaining smaller insects may also reflect the importance of community and the vulnerability of the Black family in Alabama. The scale of the largest insect makes us believe that the head of the Black insect family can shield the others from the dangers of nature and man. Their bodies appear guarded with Pan-African coats armed to block hostile attack. From weather to pesticides, the insect faces countless obstacles for his survival similar to the African on his forced journey into slavery in the New World. The dotted snowy landscape is one challenge the insect faces in the cold, wet ground and possibly indicates that the insects are not surviving, but are still dangerously enmeshed in the icy hands of Mother Nature. But hope springs eternal not in their static faces, but in the ever-moving hands, arms and legs pushing upward, seeking drier ground for refuge. Minter states during a 2015 interview that the hands are one of the most important communicative tools that we have-particularly when they move away from the action of killing(5).

Black Codes combines Southern resilience in salvaged, and junk materials with traditional media by the descendants of the racially oppressed. Moreover, it delineates the reality of legal inequity into a rich visual storybook of compassion and triumph.  

(1) James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, N.M.: Twin Palms, 2000). 
(2) Lonnie Holley, “An Artist goes back to the Ocean,” in Revelations: Art from the African-American South ed. Timothy Anglin Burgard (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2017), 33-38.  
(3)  “Fever Within,” de Young/Legion of Honor/ Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, accessed April 3, 2024,
(4) Christina L. Schmitt, “A Scintillating Message: oe Minter’s looks back and moves forward at MARCH Gallery,” Noah Becker’s WhiteHot Magazine, December 16, 2003,
(5)  Joe Minter, “Interview with “History Refused to Die’ Artist Joe Minter at his African Village in America,” Interview by Tom Leeser, Alabama Contemporary Art Center, March 18, 2015, Youtube Video, 7:02,

Ms. Danelle Bernten (she/her) is an art historian residing in Tallahassee, Florida. Her focus areas are African-American art, Southern and folk art, and arts of the African diaspora.