August 17, 2017
If I haven’t already had the opportunity to meet you tonight, my name is Dean Pittman, and I have the pleasure of being both your host this evening and the U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique. Chris and I are so pleased to welcome you to our home, and especially to share this collection of paintings and photographs from the United States.
We invited you specifically because we understand you are an artist, you’re married to an artist, or, like us, you love art and believe it serves an important function in our lives. The Art in Embassies program, through which we acquired the lovely pieces you see here tonight, was launched by the U.S. Government in the early 1960s with the belief that art tells stories.
Those stories can be both intensely personal, yet also universal. They can be tied to a specific time and place, yet timeless in their beauty. And, most important for us in the world of diplomacy, those stories can create powerful connections between individual people, and nations.
I’d like to tell you about just three of the pieces you’ll see, or perhaps have already seen, here tonight, and the stories they tell me. I’ll show them to you on the screen up here, but please do take moment to visit them in the house where we’ve installed them in their frames. And I’ll note all three of these stories have to do with the great state of Mississippi where I am from.
This first piece is a photograph taken in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1930s during the Great Depression, a time of severe economic hardship for most Americans who lived through it, especially African-Americans, and especially African-Americans in the South. And yet here stands this African-American woman who is very well-dressed with a nice pair of shoes, and a hat, looking at something interesting in a shop window, perhaps something she wants to buy.
Knowing what I know about Jackson, Mississippi at that particular point in our nation’s history, I have to wonder whether she could have even entered that store. Would she have been allowed inside given the color of her skin? Unfortunately, probably not.
So like all great photographs of everyday people living their lives, this captures a specific moment in time, but it raises a lot of questions about all the people depicted. What’s even more special about this photo is that it was taken by Eudora Welty, a fellow Mississippian who, after taking this picture, went on to become one of the most influential American writers of short stories. Artists, be they American or Mozambican, don’t tolerate confinement, either in their ideas or their form.
This second story comes from a photographer who spent three months alone paddling down the Mississippi river in a canoe. It’s a flock of pelicans taking flight off the river. And while you would think a bunch of birds taking flight would be a chaotic scene, between the clouds and the light and the composition, this photograph somehow captures a pattern.
So what’s special about this for me is that, whether on the great Mississippi River or out in Gorongosa, there are patterns in nature that we often don’t see unless we’re paying attention. But when we do see them, like the ones in this photograph, they hit us at a place deep in our hearts. I can’t really even explain why this photo draws me in, but it’s somehow all the more powerful for that.
Finally, we’ve got an abstract painting by another fellow Mississippian – a woman whom I knew, by the way – named Bess Phipps Dawson. Like the birds, there’s a lot of chaos here, an absolute riot of colors, shapes, and textures. But I’d like you to try something. I’m going to be quiet for a moment, and I’ll ask you to just concentrate on the blue square in this painting.
I don’t know about you, but I find that when I look at that blue square, I feel I’m kind of floating in that painting, on a blue raft, and despite all the colors, shapes and movement below me feel a sense of tranquility and peace. I don’t know if that’s what Ms. Dawson intended, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. What is so magnificent about paintings, or photographs, or songs, or poems, or books, or films, is that even when an artist infuses a work with a story, with meaning, someone else, even someone from a different culture or country, might come away from that piece with a completely different story, but one that’s just as powerful.
So I welcome you again to our home, and I encourage you to visit these photographs and paintings and hear the stories they have to tell you. Thank you so much for joining us, and have a lovely evening.