Good Word from Cayenne / from the series Lynch Fragments, 1990
Melvin Edwards, American, born 1937
13 1/2 × 11 1/8 × 7 in. (34.3 × 28.2 × 17.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the estate of Eleanor Freed Stern
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Good Word from Cayenne
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Melvin Edwards is best known for his sculptures made from found metal objects such as steel parts, chain, and barbed wire. His works include small wall constructions, large floor objects, and outdoor public monuments. Born in Houston in 1937, Edwards attended Wheatley Senior High School. In 1953 he was among the first African-American students at the Glassell School of Art, the teaching wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Edwards moved to Los Angeles in 1955 and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He soon became a prolific and successful artist, receiving numerous awards. Edwards has been on the faculty of Rutgers University since 1972 and has served as guest lecturer at many other universities. His work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as a major retrospective at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, New York.
Edwards’s ongoing series Lynch Fragments consists of almost two hundred wall-mounted sculptures that transform found metal objects into compact abstract forms. In Good Word from Cayenne, the artist combines various found metals—including a bolt, rebar, a length of chain, a large hook, and steel stock—to create an extraordinarily succinct composition. While representing an assemblage of individual parts, Good Word from Cayenne also demonstrates Edwards’s ability to manipulate the perception of space.
Begun in 1963, the Lynch Fragments series was prompted by the violence of the civil rights era and the lynching—both literal and metaphorical—of African-Americans. However, each sculpture contains its own story. Good Word from Cayenne is dedicated to Edwards’s friend, the poet Léon Gontran Damas, who was born in Cayenne, French Guyana. Educated in France, Damas used his poetry to speak out against the racial barriers that obstructed black students in that country. Later in his life, the poet moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a professor at Howard University.
In this small, dense work, the prominent heavy chain serves as a metaphor both for slavery and for the defiant spirit of the African-American people. It is worth noting that among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the chain is an emblem of membership in the Ogboni society. The chain also links male and female. Additionally, it represents the connection between African-Americans and their African roots.
Edwards was influenced not only by the welded-metal sculptures of the Spaniard Julio Gonzàlez (1876–1942) and the American David Smith (1906–1965), but also by the social content of their works. He has said of his transition from painter to sculptor, which occurred during the early 1960s, that “sculpture was more physical than painting. It seemed to me a more direct way to deal with the inner subject. Sculpture allowed me to put in, in a more natural way, things that people were saying you weren’t supposed to put in art, like race and politics. It allowed me to think more literally in those ways but have it come out in the work abstractly.”
When viewing Edwards’s work, it is important to consider the history that shaped the artist’s creative and aesthetic approach. Although Edwards was artistically influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s, his art also represents his personal experiences as a young African-American man. The momentous and life-changing historical events of the 1960s—such as the civil rights movement, race riots, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.—had an enormous impact on Edwards’s art. In this sculpture, the abstraction of the combined industrial parts serves to visually synthesize those experiences.
- What are your gut reactions to this work? How does it make you feel, what does it make you think of?
- Pick out the individual objects and pieces that Edwards fused together in this work. Try to think of some symbolic meanings that each could have.
- How do you think your other senses would react to this work? How do you think the sculpture would feel? Imagine holding it in your hand. Would it feel comfortable or awkward?
- Why did Edwards choose to impart his message using three-dimensional welded steel? What would the work be like if it was a painting, or a sculpture made of fabric, or any other medium?
- The bulk of Edwards’s work concerned civil rights and the African-American experience. What message does this piece add to that conversation? Back up your answer with visible details from the work.
- What does the inclusion of the chain say to you? Consider that this work was made in 1990. Also consider that in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, the chain is a symbol of cultural belonging, and that it can also symbolize the connection between men and women.
- Consider the title, Good Word from Cayenne. This work is dedicated to Edwards’s friend, poet Léon Gontran Damas, who lived in the city of Cayenne in French Guyana. Damas’s poetry spoke out against racial injustices in his culture. Why would Edwards have made a “Good Word” from Cayenne, as opposed to a “Bad Word”?
• Edwards created almost two hundred of these small sculptures. Develop a drawing showing some possible ways in which at least ten of the works could be installed. Keep in mind that all are of similar size and material. Would you hang the works on the wall? What color would you paint the wall? How would you arrange the sculptures? Why?
• Imagine how this work would change if it were made of a different material, such as cotton fabric or Styrofoam. What other materials could be used? Draw a sketch of your transformed object. How is it different from the original?
• What is Edwards saying about the history of African-Americans before the civil rights era? Describe his personal commentary. Research other African-American artists, poets, writers, or musicians who have made or are making similar comments in their work.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.