Rock Writing, 1992
Annette Lawrence, American, born 1965
Lava and limestone rocks
72 × 136 in. (182.9 × 345.4 cm)
Museum purchase funded by AT&T, New Art/New Visions, and the Wilder Foundation

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Rock Writing

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.

GRADE LEVEL

8

SUBJECT AREA

Language Arts

Art

HABITS OF MIND

Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

Annette Lawrence was born in Rockville Center, New York, in 1965. She received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Hartford Art School in 1986 and a master’s in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 1990. Lawrence then moved to Austin, Texas, and later to Houston, where she became an artist-in-residence for the Community Artist’s Collective and then for the Houston Housing Authority’s Project Bridge, sponsored by the Texas Commission on the Arts. In 1992 Lawrence was featured in the exhibition Fresh Visions/New Voices: Emerging African American Artists in Texas, held at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A year later, she joined the school’s Core Program. Lawrence also has held teaching positions at Houston Community College; the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Houston; and the University of Houston, Downtown. She is currently a professor at the University of North Texas, Denton. Her work has been featured at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Barnes-Blackman Galleries, and Inman Gallery in Houston, as well as ArtPace Foundation for Contemporary Art in San Antonio and Gerald Peters Gallery in Dallas.


 

In Rock Writing, Lawrence uses language and stone to create an image that addresses racism and the emotions it incites. Black lava rock, a stone created by volcanic upheaval within the Earth, is used to spell out the words “They Must Don’t Know Who We Are.” The white background is comprised of limestone, which is formed under much calmer geological conditions. Lawrence heard the phrase during the time of the Los Angeles racial riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. Uttered by a friend to lessen the tension in the air while waiting to be seated at a restaurant, Lawrence sought to infuse the demanding strength of these words in her work. To Lawrence, the phrase means “you (America) are not reacting to me appropriately, you don’t know me.” She believes that “the viewer is drawn into identification with this work, even though the phrasing is black.”

 

As Lawrence explains:

The phrase “They Must Don’t Know Who We Are” expresses the indignity of those who have been inappropriately received on account of the vanity and presumptuousness of Western Culture. The   syntax indicates a point of view that cannot be expressed using “correct” English. “Must” is used to emphasize the attitude of the speaker. The attitude comes from the feeling that “They” should know better than to not acknowledge “We” with due respect. “They” and “We” are applicable as the reader chooses.

 

The words in Rock Writing are literally written in stone. The permanence implied by writing in stone, and the value placed on permanence in Western Culture are debased by the form as an installation that changes each time it is assembled and disassembled. The value of Rock Writing is found in the meaning, not in the materials used.

 

Simple in its construction and design, Rock Writing is intended to appeal to all races and cultures. Lawrence’s use of the phrase “They Must Don’t Know Who We Are” is meant to imply both the sameness and the uniqueness of people. Her work strives to impress upon viewers the need for understanding and accepting all cultures. Lawrence’s major purpose in creating art dealing with African-American issues and themes is to combat the ignorance surrounding black history and culture. Her works also reflect the situation that she dealt with growing up, when African-American history and culture were omitted from the main curriculum of the education system.

Conversation Starters

Observe

  • How was this work installed? What kinds of materials are used in it?
  • Consider the size of this work. How much space does it take up? Imagine it outside the gallery space—in your classroom, in a public park, or somewhere else. How does it relate to the environment and to the people around it?
  • What is your reaction to the written phrase in the work? What kind of writing do you think it is: a poem? A quote? A saying?

Interpret

  • Analyze the written phrase word by word. What is the meaning of it? Who is speaking—who is “they”, who is “we”? What emotions are behind this writing, and how can you tell? What style of writing is this?
  • This phrase was spoken in Los Angeles during race riots following the controversial Rodney King verdict. What do you think the speaker meant? What might he have been feeling? Why do you think Lawrence deemed it important enough to incorporate into her work?
  • There are two types of stone in this piece: black volcanic rock, and white limestone. What do you know about those rocks—how is volcanic rock formed? How is limestone formed? Might these materials have symbolic meaning for the work?
  • This is an installation piece, and has to be totally disassembled and reassembled each time it moves. The rocks are not fixed together, but loose. Is that typical for artworks? Why do you think Lawrence created it this way? Do you think the process of reassembling and disassembling impacts the work’s meaning?

Assessment

• Research the Rodney King incident and the Los Angeles race riots. Read the quotes from Annette Lawrence included on this card. What do you think Lawrence is saying? What do the words “They Must Don’t Know Who We Are” mean to you now?

• As an installation, this work can be assembled in a variety of places and settings. Where do you think it would have the most meaning? Why? (Think about the audience who will receive the message, the ground on which Rock Writing will be installed, whether it will be indoors or outdoors, and so on.)

• Artists often create series or groups of works that enhance, communicate, or play off one another. Imagine you are working with Lawrence and she has asked you to create a companion work to Rock Writing. What would your work say? What color, size, and shape would you choose for your rocks? How large would your work be? Would it be permanent or an installation piece? Explain your decisions.


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.