The Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett at UNC’s Ackland Art Museum is an exposé that commands attention. Not only is the work astounding, but its social nuances may require you to linger and dig a bit beneath the surface. This is present in the meanings of his works, as well as the materials used to create them. Creating a whimsical feel, Lockett uses rubbish materials–wood, rusting tin sheets, and wires—as his materials of choice. These pieces demonstrated the cycle of life, and that there can be use for everything that was at one time beautiful. Through his works, Lockett communicated the social implications of being an African American male in the 90s, and the emotional sufferings of dealing with the diagnosis of HIV/AIDS.
Though Lockett’s career lasted only a decade, his output was prolific. Working mostly with found materials, he created deeply personal works of hidden beauty, even though they touch on themes of individual and societal suffering and loss. The beginning of the exhibit, browsers are immediately shown a story. Lockett’s paintings, some of which have historical titles – Hiroshima, Holocaust – or titles of more localized suffering, such as his Homeless canvases. These serve as social critiques about the tragedies of our past, and almost force on lookers to create modern-day parallels as they browse through the exhibit. In one of Lockett’s works, his imagery is abstract, leaving the luxury of imagination to the onlooker. Most of his works, set against a stark, featureless background of mute colors are animals or people—most of which are who are falling. Their lack of defining features gives them a universal quality which evokes the browser to place themselves in his pieces.
A recurring motif throughout his work is the ominous deer, whose body is frequently trapped, namely surrounded by wire. It can be deduced that the stag is Lockett’s “patronus”, as he utilizes the deer to evoke his internal feelings by the location of each piece, using it to point to the contemporary suffering of African Americans. This is most vehemently displayed in his piece, “Traps”. The piece displays two deer, which can be creatively understood to be Lockett and his long time girlfriend behind a sheet of wire from which they cannot escape. The message behind “Traps” can be taken in several ways: to some, it is a critique on the social injustices of the African American people in this era, trapped behind wires although they can still see the “promise land”. Still, others may interpret this as Lockett’s narration of his own life, after he and his girlfriend’s diagnosis of HIV/AIDs; this is somewhat relatable to many, because of the deer’s positioning behind a fence. Several accounts of those living with HIV/AIDs report that life is similar to the picture, they feel outcaste and captured, with a metaphorical barbed wire separating them from society.
When looking at Lockett’s art, we must think about more than just emotion and affect. Too often, African American artists are viewed only through historical and socioeconomic lenses. However, especially in the case of Lockett, it is imperative that we look at him through another – the health scope. Our understanding of his pieces effectively communicate grief and loss, but his works progress in his final years following his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS; his art explored mortality, salvation, and remembrance. During a period of deep depression, shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV, Lockett produced one of his most notable pieces to demonstrate his confusion, entitled “Coming Out of the Haze”. In the piece a deer appears lost in the furrows and folds of oxidized tin. This confusion demonstrates Lockett’s feelings during the time; the artist feared that news of his HIV status would provoke a suspicion that he was gay, even though he had a long-term girlfriend who had also attracted the virus.
Stories like Lockett’s are a tragic, yet vaguely patterned example of how fear and shame can prevent people with AIDS from receiving the appropriate medical and emotional support in their communities. Whether through medical, spiritual or emotional needs for those living with HIV/ AIDS, artists often assume the roles of critics, activists and advocates but miss the last and most important step: action. Without action, many of these great minds will fall victim to a virus they critique, but ignore.
Devyn Davis is a Senior majoring in Media and Journalism.