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Joe Light

American, 20th century.
Born 1934, Memphis, Tennessee; died 2005, Memphis.


Joe Light was born in 1934 in Memphis, Tennessee. For most of his youth, Light worked on a farm before enlisting in the United States Army in 1951. He was discharged from the Army after suffering a self-inflicted wound and incarcerated on at least two occasions for armed robbery. Light’s conversion to Judaism, during his second prison term, changed the course of his life. Possessed by the fervor of a convert, he began making signs, driftwood sculptures, and paintings that expressed his political and spiritual views.

Light considered himself to be a fighter against ignorance, injustice, hypocrisy, and various other human shortcomings. He wrote biblical-sounding pronouncements on sidewalks and on walls under the expressway. His yard was full of signs instructing parents to nurture their children as flowers in a garden; signs that lamented sex education in the schools, which he was convinced turned teenagers into pimps and prostitutes; signs complaining about the lack of support for blacks by other blacks; reprimands to the government for lying to its citizens and mistreating its minorities. Light’s signs were both challenging and sometimes threatening.

Light’s paintings and sculptures have a pop sensibility derived from his constant appropriation of American kitsch. Indeed, the artist’s only connection to the world of high art was by way of its remnants that have made their ways to the flea markets or onto the television screen. Light often painted over framed reproductions from the flea markets, retaining the imagery of the originals while transforming them into personal statement. He painted Old Testament narratives on the walls of his house, but the stories of Adam and Eve banished from Eden, or Lot and his wife fleeing Sodom, become TV’s Flintstones types, Pebbles and Bam Bam. This complete fusion of high and low, paired with Light’s personal and spiritual beliefs, has created a symbolic path that guides the viewer toward enlightenment and salvation.

- Jenifer P. Borum


Selected Exhibitions

2004, Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South, Art Museum of the University of Memphis, Memphis

2001, Let It Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection, High Museum of Art, Atlanta

1989, Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways Through the Black Atlantic South, New Visions Gallery, New York

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, Illinois

Selected Bibliography

Crown, Carol, "Joe Louis Light," obituary, Folk Art Messenger, 18.1, Summer 2005.

Arnett, Paul and William, Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Vol. 1: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf, Tinwood Books, Atlanta, 2001.

Gundaker, Grey, Signs of Diaspora, Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
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