Joseph Diggs: Proud 2 Be American

March 9 - June 16, 2019

Baseball, service to country, Fourth of July, and the family bar, Joe’s Twin Villa in Osterville, provide the imagery by which Cape Cod artist Joseph Diggs explores, memorializes, and celebrates his African American family.

Diggs’s works, with mixed media and photographic underpinnings, have swooping brushstrokes, glancing lines, and dripping swaths of paint. Hovering between action painting, graffiti, and realism, they are complicated compositions in which faces, text, or symbols provide clues to Diggs’s family’s place in the history of the U.S.A.

Proud 2 Be American also speaks of being black in America in the age of renewed racial strife. The newest canvas is a memorial to James Byrd, Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Texas in 1998. It is a long, narrow, near abstract painting composed of alternating passages of dark and light, with the lynching-by-dragging represented toward the bottom. The attenuated verticality of the composition references both the physical and temporal aspects of the murder. In testament to Diggs’s compassion, the horrific act does not define our experience of the painting. The ascending bands of golden yellow impart an ambient glow creating a visual elegy to James Byrd, Jr.

— Mara Williams, Chief Curator

Proud 2 Be American was inspired by an article about my uncle Mitchell, a Tuskegee Airman. After the war he wanted to fly commercial jets but was denied the opportunity because of his race. I wanted to make a piece of artwork that would depict his accomplishments without negativity about his situation.

First, with a stencil of the American flag that included the words “God Bless America” and “Proud to Be an American,” I spray painted four 12-inch-square wooden panels in black and white, varying the color combinations. Then, with additional colors, I combined the photograph of my uncle in his pilot gear with the stencil. Mitchell’s self-possessed, almost regal, expression and bearing in the photo exude pride and dignity, showing a man far from negative.

I asked myself, What does it really mean to be proud, especially when you grow up in a racially suppressed and divided country? Pride comes from a place that reminds us of the positive changes we have made, through even our hardest times, as the people who helped build this great nation. In this fragile time, when it seems easy to take a side and speak negatively about what we feel is wrong with our country, it is more important than ever to appreciate the basic good in us all.

— Joseph Diggs