2 Strange Fruit- the art of protest

  • Blog
  • by Emily Elisa Halpern
  • 24-06-2020
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A new piece: “Strange Fruit”, oil paint on linen, 76” x 76”, June 2020.  The title refers the lynching deaths of Abraham Smith, Thomas Shipp and James Cameron in Indiana in August 7th, 1930. In retribution for the killing of a white man and supposed assault of his girlfriend, a mob broke into a jailhouse and beat to death and hung the three black men. Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist teacher and civil rights activist from the Bronx, had seen a picture of their lynching and carnival of white supremacy and wrote the poem as a form of political protest, which he later turned into a song.  

 Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop


 In the 1940’s African American jazz singer Billie Holiday made it famous not just as a song, but as a work of art.


Holiday’s father had been turned away from life-saving treatment at the hospital, because he was black, and consequently died.  She sang the song to close her shows and exited while the stage was black with no following encores as a commemoration to her father and as a protest against racism. Those in support of civil rights were very supportive while other patrons vehemently opposed the song. One of those hostile to Holiday’s boldness and intent on wanting to keep blacks "in their place", was racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger.  

Anslinger wanted to crush Holiday’s career as he believed jazz was the “devil’s music” and encouraged drug abuse. He forbid her to perform the song, and knowing she was a drug user, set up a sting operation which entrapped her into purchasing heroin when she persisted in singing the song. She was sent to jail for a year and a half and upon release was denied a license to perform in cabarets. She was still able to sell out some venues but lapsed back into heavy drug abuse. When her health failed on multiple levels, she checked herself into the hospital. However, Anslinger was still bent on her destruction and had her handcuffed to the bed and forbid doctors from treating her illness. Like her father, she died days later.  It is some consolation that Time named Strange Fruit the Song of the Century in 1999. Holiday was treated with the dignity she deserved and posthumously awarded 23 Grammy’s and inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame.

Why did I paint this?  A shrink I once saw recommended that I should never defend myself, and just listen. Clearly, this is an area fraught with tension and I am sensitive to the disgusting nature of the content. Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney created such controversy and pain that it was removed and some might say that as a white woman, I have no right to paint such a topic. This is a very disturbing time in the country and as a member of this society, I am affected by what is happening. Sociologist Marshall McLuhan said “You cannot not communicate.”  As an artist, I filter what I see, feel and think about from events in my own life and the world around me. I am a depressive. I was/am devastated by the death of George Floyd and by police abuse of power and systemic racism.  We are surrounded by death tally’s daily now- with Corona virus spikes and death rates going up constantly. Like Leon Golub’s politically critical work, I express my own outrage over present day versions of lynching while at the same time offering my support for a bold outspoken woman- Billie Holiday. While she sang this song in the 40’s, the same issues still persist.

This painting is open to interpretation of course. I’m not a figure painter, but one more like in the tradition of Ben Shahn with clunky characters and awkward poses. Like my big yellow painting, “My Addictions”, I focus on feet and legs. One character is clearly black, one has three legs and one is red- maybe flayed, maybe not. The yellow and reddish color paint strokes indicate an up and down movement. Their feet are misshapen and club-like. They could be dancing and jumping- they could be on their tip toes, they could be hanging and twisting in a death grip.  Aside from the title, it is unspecific. I refer to my work as abstract representational. What you see is who you are. Maybe they're jumping from hell into heaven. Ultimately, I hope it is seen as my own protest work.


  • Kerry

    26-06-2020 09:53

    This a sensitive and compassionate artwork about a wrenching, horrific reality that continues even today, and your statement above lifts it above what might otherwise be seen as an easy subject grab. You show your own courage in admitting your vulnerability, and continuing to process and create despite what must be sometimes painful in that revelation.

    Thank you Kerry. That means a lot to me.
  • Mike Moroz

    24-06-2020 22:39

    I love that you are doing these paintings. They are beautiful paintings that carry a powerful message. Unfortunately systemic racism is everywhere, it knows no borders. Police here shot and killed a 62 year old man who suffered from schizophrenia and other illnesses. He was born in Pakistan but lives here with his family. The man was holding a pocket knife and they fired 7 shots!

    The more that people speak up, the better chance that we can make this a better and safer world for everyone. But we especially need to defend and protect those who are at the greatest of risk of being killed just because of the color of their skin!

    You are doing a fantastic thing here, keep it up!!


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