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The Murder of James Byrd: An Artist Documents the Scene at CentralTrak

by Danielle Georgiou 20 Sep 2011 9:48 AM

A Houston artist puts his own visual spin on a well-known story.


El Franco Lee II, “James Byrd 3”

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is the Artistic Director and Choreographer of DGDG: Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble.

Talk about timely: At UT Dallas’ CentralTrak, there are three paintings that graphically depict the murder of James Byrd, just as one of his convicted murderers, Lawrence Russell Brewer, is set to be executed on Wednesday.

In 1998, three white men in the town of Jasper, Texas, murdered James Byrd. In 2006 (and again in 2009), a young African-American artist from Houston, El Franco Lee II, chose to render in heart-breaking detail this horrific scene. In 2011, the work is being exhibited at CentralTrak, an artists’ residency and non-profit gallery in Dallas, as part of a larger show, “LIQUID ANALOG,” displaying Lee’s body of work.

As a third generation resident of Houston’s 5th Ward, the son of the county commissioner and the nephew of a Black Panther, Lee was raised with an awareness of Southern culture. That culture is portrayed in his socially reflective paintings, which confront controversial and unsettling subject matter. In “LIQUID ANALOG,” hip-hop cultural turf wars and the tragedies of post-Katrina New Orleans are addressed, as are pivotal moments in Black history — including Byrd’s murder.

There is a sense of history in Lee’s work, but it is his interpretation that is most significant. He creates fantastical images that are visual mash-ups of popular entertainers, super heroes, contemporary sports figures and historical figures. The ways in which he puts his own spin on familiar subject matter is similar to storytellers making oral histories their own.

And just as stories told in ancient traditions were altered as they were passed down, Lee’s paintings reflect those concepts through a visual medium. Still, the performative aspect remains intact. Stories and histories are an integral part of society, and in contrast to written “literature” — in this case, news stories — the interpretations aid in maintaining an interest in history. They also provide a way to approach a topic that is gruesome and real.

“LIQUID ANALOG” runs through Oct. 8 at CentralTrak. The gallery is open Wednesdays-Saturday from noon – 5 p.m. and will be a part of the Deep Ellum Art Walk on Saturday.