“Touch Me Not”, is a response painting to the horrific massacre of nine African-American parishioners at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. The symbolism of the Confederate flag, which was so hotly contested in the aftermath of the confessed murderer’s embrace of it, is central to the theme of this painting. While the title of the painting, a motto from a post Civil War Alabama state flag implies that the state is impervious to outside forces and cannot be conquered, my placement of the red cross in the very center of the painting proposes a different interpretation.
The red cross both intersects and interconnects the three characters in this montage. The two young African-American children who are picking cotton express a multitude of emotions: anguish, fortitude, yearning and attentive calm. They are too young to be laborers. The expression of the younger of the two is much older than his years. His eyes penetrate the viewer. I imagine his orange hair is a result of Kwashiorkor, a severe protein deficiency. The older one is touching a cotton flower as if he is seeking beauty amongst thorns and bolls.
Many years prior to this painting I purchased an antique photograph of the southern schoolboy depicted in this painting. The inscription written in old cursive is, “Rivers B. Merriwether, 10 years old. Taken at Marion Alabama 1869.” In the tradition of the time he is posed in such a way as to convey leadership, or even conquest reminiscent of Napoleon. Starring directly into the camera, his eyes were painted blue and his relaxed left hand rested on a plush armchair. Although his people were vanquished the photograph seems to say; he will not know defeat. He is clad for command. Future generations will not forget his name.
Burdened. These children were burdened. They were bound by an abusive, exploitative order and the Dixie flag is its symbol. Tragically, it took the slaughter of nine worshipers to starkly expose – the lie that the Confederate flag is a benign, cultural symbol.
“Touch Me Not” motto was written in Latin, “Noli Me Tangere.”