Henry Speller's Bodies of the Blues

Henry Speller's Bodies of the Blues

First published: Winter 2008

While previous studies of the artwork of Henry Speller, a visual artist and blues musician from the Delta region of Mississippi, have focused on the observational nature of his drawings, recording moments of his life or the buildings around Memphis, Tennessee, there is a much greater, figural theme within Speller’s oeuvre which bears deeper consideration in the light of his connection to blues music: what has become known as the blues aesthetic.

 


Sometimes fashionable, but more often sexualised and menacing, Speller’s figures fetishise the body. Based on the blues lyrics Speller knew and performed, his fascination with women in particular can be seen as a visualisation of pain, functioning as a way of confronting the complexities of the human situation through the creation of fantasies. This theme in turn fits within the realm of the grotesque and the abject, depicting a shifting, wavy body that threatens to exceed containment.

Speller was born and raised near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Until around 1940, remaining in the area, growing crops, loading riverboats and erecting telegraph poles. Reflecting on this work, Speller stated, ‘Stand out there in that cold water sometime up to your chin, thinking, “Don’t want to drown." Then them boats come by, wheel rolling, music, ladies, things going on. It give you some ideas to think about, forget the other stuff.’

Speller connected what he witnessed on these boats to this exhausting manual labour. The boats carried a lifestyle that was the extreme opposite of his own, and his memories of them produced compelling associations in his drawings.

 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #65