Thornton Dial did not begin making art until he was in his fifties, yet he developed a highly original visual vocabulary using found materials ranging from scrap metal and wood to rags and frayed rope, combined with semiabstract images rendered in oil paint. Employing animistic symbols and often evocative titles, his works offer a double consciousness about the simultaneous optimism and despair faced by African Americans in Alabama, one of the poorest US states and one with a brutal history of oppressing and impoverishing its Black residents. Dial’s imagery arose from the labor-intensive work he had done his entire life, first as a farmhand and child sharecropper in rural Alabama, later as a steelworker in the industrial city of Bessemer. Dial was the earliest and most important visual artist to be associated with Alabama’s Black Belt, an achievement he managed utterly without institutional support or formal recognition. He was also a crucial artistic mentor to a generation of younger artists in the Birmingham/Bessemer region, including his cousin Ronald Lockett, and a valued peer of others, such as Lonnie Holley and Joe Minter. Like Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, Dial’s works often engage both the wall and the floor, uniting painting and sculpture in a single work. Dial pioneered a form of assemblage that derived from yard shows—that is, sprawling outdoor installations made by Black people throughout the South as a way to adorn their hard-won property.
Like a lot of art by African American artists, Dial’s works have been wrongly assumed to be simply literal descriptions of Black life in America rather than pointed, often coded commentaries. Coding was a profound part of the Black struggle in the Deep South: a way of shielding meaning from the Caucasian population, which dominated public mores and land and business ownership, and also enforced racial inequities and mistreatment. Dial’s evocative but subtle artworks are a testament to what he himself once said: “My art is the evidence of my freedom.”
The Bat Lady is a metaphoric and coded rendering, an insolent depiction of women as quick and magical, with an uncanny ability to be everywhere at once. The drawing shows two interlocking figures, one human, with blue chalk heightening the swollen exhaustion of her puffy eyes, and the other animal, with a piercing gaze and a sharp and knowing mouth. The latter, a bat, is simultaneously a decorative double arch and a silent witness, hovering at the top of the drawing as though judging the goings-on below.
Dial often incorporated pop-cultural references in his work, and pictured bats rarely if ever, so it’s possible that The Bat Lady refers slyly to the popular superhero film Batman Forever, made the same year as the drawing. In that scenario, the heavily made-up human figure would be a nod to Nicole Kidman, Batman’s love interest in the film, framed by the extended wings of the bat itself. The movie was a worldwide phenomenon and Dial could well have seen it, or advertising or trailers for it; but this suggestion must remain speculative. What is certain is that bats, the only flying mammals that nurse their young, are long-lived, intelligent creatures with complex social lives. In Dial’s portrait, such creatures embody the spiritual essence of women, with entwined, sheer, weblike arms that swirl and swoop as wings, evidence of their pointed surveillance as guardians over the travails and difficulties of the male species. As Dial affirmed in an interview, “Women be in just about everything I have made, in one way or another way.”
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Jenni Sorkin, independent scholar