Transcendent Stills: Revealing the "Unseen Spirit" with Chester Higgins
Steps beyond the entryway of the Hammond House Museum is Chester Higgins Maafa Procession, 1998. The work, chosen by curator Anika Dawkins, is apart of a solo exhibition Unseen Spirit in conjunction with Atlanta Celebrates Photography. A highly publicized Photojournalist, Higgins has spent most of his professional years as a contributor for the New York Times since he moved to the city from the rural Alabama in the early seventies. Though each of the selected works on the main floor maintains breathable wall space from the next, one may only find themselves confronted with the instant alluring quality of this particular work until after winding through the museum floor. A moderately sized photograph, the eloquently composed 9x14” silver gelatin print; Maafa Procession reveals a first hand perspective of what appears to be a religious ritual of African decent. The participants covered in all white from head to toe move and overlap in a praising fashion. Hypnotized by the impact of the print, the image says as much about the subjects as it does the photographer. As the compelling movement of the dancing lines are carefully illustrated through Chester’s master of shutter speed and light. One immediately questions the sentiments behind those involved, as the mournful longing the work exudes also takes on an equally celebratory nature.
Blurred yet implicit irregular lines curve from the linear focal point of the shot, creating visual vibrations formed by the slow shutter speed of Higgins camera. The dark contrast present in the photo omits any direct detail due to the camera’s aperture opening. Adding an abstract value that draws the viewer in pursuit of further investigation. Tracing the body movements of each individual within the group there’s an undeniable emotional and a spiritual depth that radiates from the artwork. The blue turquois tent of Maafa Procession sets it apart from the collection of otherwise all black and white prints. The procession positioned at eye level is asymmetrically balanced subjects; directing the viewers’ eye from the left to the right of the frame. While the characteristics of the photograph are reminiscent of relief like paintings of the classical period rather than a machine-generated image forged by Higgins decisive reaction to the moment. The subtle gradation flowing horizontally shifts in a sunset like pattern across the background and contours the fabric of the white clothing adding symbolism to the untold story behind the glass. Higgins jumps into the psyche of the procession, exposing the heart of the ritual by eliminating everything around the participants and leaving nothing but the moment.
The Maafa procession is apart of the annual commemoration that pays homage to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The word Maafa appropriately refers to the African American Holocaust, a Swahili term that means great tragedy or disaster. The drum lead procession notes the beginning of that became the visual starting point for blacks in America. This celebration deals with the historical burden and systematic degradation of African Americans. Urging descendants of those persecuted to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors and become charged with the duty “the past we inherit; the future we create”. As captured by Higgins was caught during at a parade in modern day New York yet the photograph carries a timeless sincerity that shows no sign of place or time, only significance. In talking about Maafa Procession Higgins recalls, "I look for the spirit in people. You see something, but there's something else you feel but you don't see".
This omnipresent quality that lingers beneath the image is a reflection of the devout spiritual connection Higgins art bind the soul of humanity with his love of God. While his deep understanding of the black experience can be attributed to the community of strong black influences that empowered Higgins to develop his own sociological mission towards his work. A product of the Civil Right Movement and former student of the Tuskegee’s P.H. Polk, Higgins learned the fundamentals behind photography in order to document the kind of images that are lacking within the history of the African Diaspora. The love of his family and identity inspired his efforts to define African Americans as dignified citizens of the world. Fueled exclusively by “the heart”, it’s clear his interactions with Life photographer Gordon Parks also trained Higgins eye to quickly identify and relate with the subjects he epistemologically articulates in his photographs. Lending truth to Polk’s notion that “only your eyes can make a picture”. The time that Higgins spends with subjects’ pushes him from an outsider to a homogeneous bystander to the subjects he comes to know and record.
The transcendent property that signifies the images within Higgins catalogue seems to reaffirm his belief in the Great Spirit and his dedication to immersing himself politically as an activist with a lens. The sociological message Maafa Procession and other works about “the experience” are well communicated through the emotional impact the images convey. What supports the overall mood and palpable universal truths Higgins photographs encompass is his delicate use of ambient light. Having been introduced to the methodology behind constructing by painter Romare Bearden, Higgins realized that unlike he create surreal drama by “catching the light” that exists within the environment. Higgins photographic endeavors, like those before him, inform the black community. Showing past and future generations’ what they should care about as a community through his work.
Carrying the torch of the African American artists’ that sought to redefine the image of black people and revealing the soul of the African Diaspora, Chester Higgins Maafa Procession is an everlasting testament to the power of imagery. A man who views God as existence in all parts of the physical world it’s of no question how Higgins is able to manifest such overwhelming essence of into a single shot. Finding missing pieces Pan-African heritage in everyday situations his instrumental use of light produces boundless visual capabilities that layer the hand of the photographer with the photograph. Higgins eye is the sole modifier of the artwork enforcing the mindset that passion is the most prevalent qualifier of a true artist. Simultaneously utilizing his own experiences that have informed and the collective experience of humanity had outlined the way Higgins is able to inform his audience. The incorruptible moment effectively narrated in Maafa Procession can only fall deaf on the blind. Removing itself from critical judgment into a realm of sacrosanct artistry leaving the viewer with something to walk away with.