NCMA Recommends: Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

Michael Richards, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999, resin on steel, H. 81 x W. 30 x D. 19 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Michael Richards

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots whose heroic contributions to World War II were recognized only in the past few decades. The sculpture, cast from the artist’s own body, represents a gold-painted airman penetrated on all sides by small airplanes, reminiscent of the arrows shot at St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr. The title of the work, with its double reference to the saint and a southern folktale of entrapment, pays tribute to the Tuskegee pilots and to all who suffer intolerance and unfairness.

The backstory of the sculpture, though, is a haunting one. The work itself, in effect a self-portrait, now seems an eerie foretelling of the artist’s death. Richards was a victim of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; his studio was on the 92nd floor of Tower One. Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, too, was feared lost in the wreckage and was not found at his home. It was later found stored in a relative’s garage outside of New York City.

Young Artists at Work

Powerful themes like the ones found in Michael Richards’s work can inspire new generations of artists. The NCMA is thrilled to host the online opening of the special exhibition Boys and Girls Clubs of America Arts Contest Southeast Regional Winners.

Each year the Boys and Girls Clubs of America hosts a national arts contest to “inspire creativity and skill development in photography, visual arts, and digital design.” This year, the NCMA partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Wake County, hosts of the 2019—2020 Southeast Regional contest, to exhibit the winners at this regional level. These works were to be exhibited at the NCMA in April 2020; because of closure, we are now sharing these works with you, and a bit about the process, in a virtual format.

Learn more in the video and on Circa, the Museum blog.

St. Sebastian around the World

At a time when it was punishable by death to profess Christian faith, St. Sebastian (256—287 C.E.) was tied to a stake by Roman soldiers as a live archery target. Although tradition says he was rescued by angels (another version says a Roman widow tended to his wounds), he is depicted in art being punctured by arrows. The patron saint of soldiers, athletes, and martyrs, he is seen in classical paintings all over the world. Take a deeper dive into St. Sebastian Tended by Irene (1625) by Hendrick ter Brugghen.

Remembering and Revering

 – Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian brings to mind two films, one about the Tuskegee Airmen and a documentary about sculptor and architect Maya Lin, who has used her work to memorialize major events through the healing power of art.–Maria Lopez, Manager of Film and Lecture Programs

– The Tuskegee Airmen (1995). Director: Robert Markowitz. Based on a true story, this film chronicles the experiences of the first Black fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Watch on HBO Max or rent on Amazon.

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994). Director: Freida Lee Mock. This Academy Award-winning documentary explores the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a decade of Lin’s creative work. Rent on Vimeo.

Moment of Meditation

Sometimes life can be overwhelming or things in the world feel scary, and that’s OK. In this short video, our partners at Growga offer a helpful meditative practice for processing worry and other big feelings. Suitable for all ages.

Music of the Airmen’s Era

Much like the history of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, represented in Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, jazz music of the same era was welcomed into white spaces while the Black community from whence the genre came continued to face immense oppression. In Nazi Germany jazz music was even forbidden, until it was found that it could be corrupted for use in the regime’s favor. At home in the United States, the art continued evolving, in response to and independently of the war. Jazz remains one of our nation’s most treasured art forms. We hope you enjoy this playlist of 1930s—1940s jazz, in recognition of the service of its creators and contributors, and its cultural impact throughout history.

And then join us on Tuesday, September 15, when Dreamroot performs virtually from the Museum galleries for our second installment of Offstage Live! This quintet from Durham creates music as a refuge from chronic illness, racism, hatred, and the struggles of living in the 21st century. Live streaming will be available through this YouTube link starting September 15 at 8 pm.–Janette Hoffman, Acting Artistic Director and General Manager, Outdoor Amphitheater

Audio Description

The recording below is an audio description of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. Audio description is narration for individuals who are blind or have low vision. It is a means to inform them about visual content essential for comprehension.

Join a Discussion on Monuments

As we contemplate the self-portrait created by Michael Richards that could now be interpreted as a premonitory memorial to the artist himself, we are invited to take part in a larger conversation about the nature of monuments and memorials. The Mellon Foundation’s Cultural Counsel says, “Public monuments and memorials profoundly shape our collective understanding of the past and help determine which histories we will continue to preserve and celebrate in the future.”

Virtual Slow Art Appreciation

Join us in observing and reflecting on Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian with guest facilitator Kyma Lassiter of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. This free virtual program on Wednesday, September 16, guides you through centering techniques and a breathing practice followed by an intentional observation of the piece. For ages 16 and up.


Sep 11, 2020


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