Art21 Educators Institute: Laylah Ali on Process and “John Brown Song!”

On an afternoon in July, more than thirty ART21 Educators gathered at the Joan Mitchell Foundation to hear artist Laylah Ali’s talk on process. Constantly accruing a collection of snapshots, diaries, journals, and sketchbooks is always a part of her art-making method she said, but when the Dia Art Foundation commissioned her to create a web-based project, the painter found herself in uncharted territory.

Inspired by childhood memories of her grandmother singing “John Brown’s Body,” a marching song about the abolitionist John Brown, Ali set out to create a flexible collection of videos and resources documenting the complex history of the song and its subject. The lyrics of the original song referenced the harsh truths of the black experience, including hangings and repeated references to Brown’s body “a-mouldering in the grave.” The history of the lyrics themselves is a complicated one, with varying versions that are often wholly different, as was most famously the case with Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

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