Isaka Shamsud-Din: Rock of Ages is an intimate exhibition celebrating the Portland artist’s masterful paintings, rich in a narrative combining personal stories and folklore. Shamsud-Din’s paintings also celebrate and honor individuals by capturing portraits. Tightly composed and with a vibrancy of color, the works invite viewers to be among these individuals and warm settings. The exhibition is titled after Shamsud-Din’s painting of his father, Rock of Ages (1976), the museum’s most recent acquisition of the artist’s work. Capturing his subject in the luscious garden that his father prided himself in—a setting that was particularly special for the very close father and son—Shamsud-Din invites the viewer to see this man. All of the paintings in this exhibition offers an intimate glimpse of Shamsud-Din’s subjects and the artist’s own practice as an artist.
Isaka Shamsud-Din (born 1940) came to Portland via Texas when he was in the first grade. The sixth of 14 children, Shamsud-Din became aware of the many inequitable systems as a young black person navigating his world on a daily basis. However, Shamsud-Din has maintained his commitment to art, education, and work for the African American community and his home. Last year, Shamsud-Din was recognized with Isaka Shamsud-Din Day, a Juneteenth celebration at Portland’s City Hall honoring his work as an artist and social justice leader.
With special thanks to the partnership of Teressa Raiford of Don't Shoot Portland and the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC).
A portrait of my father, Isaac Edward Allen, Sr. (1898 –1990). He was a master farmer, a magician with soils raising bountiful crops in 1947 without motorized equipment, with horses and mules in the backwoods of Queen City, in northeast Texas. Born in Utility, Louisiana, he later moved to Texas, where he married Geneva Jenkins (1918—2013). We were self-sustaining and independent due to our isolation and resourcefulness. In 1947, a group of armed white men took him away from our home. They beat him and left him for dead at a place named Bowie Hill. But he survived, travelled to Vanport City, Oregon, and sent for his wife and us ten children later. He moved to San Bernardino, California, in the 1960s and is posed in front of his garden. He was the first to encourage and support my growth and development as an artist.
Portraits of my friend from grade school, James Cunningham (the hare) and my twin brothers Cleve (the lion) and Steve (the spider), whose personal styles reminded me of those West African folktale characters that were the models for Br’er Rabbit stories that became popular in American books, film, and comics. I painted them live in three two-hour sittings in my San Francisco flat. “Black Power” had come to life and Pan-Africanism became an anthem, represented by the Pan-African flag and the ghost-like zebra. Expressing my desire for a unified African, African Diaspora people, reconnected to ourselves to reshape our world and save the planet. Cleve was a founder of KBOO FM Community Radio in Portland, Oregon.
“Land of the Empire Builders, Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men, Fairest and the best.
On-ward and upward ever, Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of the Heroes, My Oregon.
Land of the rose and sunshine, Land of the summer’s breeze;
Laden with health and vigor, Fresh from the western seas.
Blest by the blood of martyrs, Land of the setting sun;
Hail to thee, Land of Promise, My Oregon.”
This song, Oregon, My Oregon, written by Henry B. Murtagh and lyrics by John A. Buchanan, was adopted as the official state song in 1927. Shamsud-Din recalls the memory of having to sing this in elementary school and realizing, even at such a young age, the dissonance of making Black students sing these words. Land of the Empire Builders offers us a montage of what “conquering the West” encompassed.
The central figure is the young soldier John Jefferson, who was a Black Seminole Indian Scout and from the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, a segregated African-American unit also called the Buffalo Soldiers in the post–Civil War army. The cavalry’s coat of arms occupies the right side of the background, and a blue ribbon with the words “Tenth Cavalry” is woven in the foreground. In the background, we see a woman who served the troops as nurse, chambermaid, cook, and laborer of other supplemental work for soldiers during the Civil War. Children were also servants for the Confederate troops. In the foreground is a row of children, arrested—or rather kidnapped—often for misdemeanor crimes during Reconstruction after the Emancipation Proclamation. These children were leased out from courts to plantations, factories, and other places for hard labor. Some were never released. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
Shamsud-Din’s painting overall exudes a warm glow and the subjects are painted with gold, in this case, to represent the currency of these individuals and the value of those least acknowledged in the name of progress. In this way, Shamsud-Din confronts this history, makes tribute to it, and visually expresses that reparations are still due.
For several years I sketched at a bar next door to my studio with the idea to capture some of that life, the meshing of figures/shapes, personalities, and my reflections. The painting, named for a black motorcycle club whose members sometimes relaxed there. Contrary to stereotype, no violent incidents occurred there in the nine years I was on the set. Peaceful people—everyday working folks. The painting combines several sketches. The pyramids I added ask the question, “What would we be doing, with knowledge of self—and slave reparations?” I’m sketching in the foreground, at a table on the left.
This is a painting of a dear friend, Jean Vessup, and her daughter Aisha. It was an attempt to capture their warmth and closeness, a joy to behold. They were about the same height—4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet—small in stature, big in heart. This was a two-stage development, as many of my works are. I completed half of the piece at one live session in my studio, finishing it without the need for another sitting. The work flowed effortlessly and was finished in ten to twelve hours over a period of several days. The background is to accentuate and give movement and rhythm to the composition to complement the figures, the protective, confident gaze of the mother, the assured and secure gaze of the daughter.
In the background are portraits of my brothers who have all passed on. In the front is my younger brother Charles (we were born on the same day, he six years after me) and myself on the right. I call this Sky Reunion because we were all close.
This is an old friend, Al Harris. He was a postal worker and really liked Reggae music. He was also a musician and was in a band called Sun Child. Al sang and played the thumb piano. I made an album cover for them too, but it never got released.
Isaka Shamsud-Din has been Portland’s most prolific muralist and important artist whose work around the Rose City spans over fifty years. In an historical and biographical approach, Shamsud-Din captures the vitality and strength of the African American experience. In one of Shamsud-Din’s earliest murals, Vanport (1965, located at Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union), illustrates the devastating impact of the Vanport flood of 1948, which directly affected Shamsud-Din’s own family in his childhood.
In addition to celebrating local figures and the vibrant music scene, Shamsud-Din constantly educates and illuminates the richness that exists in Portland to ensure we understand a more profound history. An epic mural, Bilalian Odyssey (1983, Oregon Convention Center’s south wing) depicts important African American figures from 1805 to the 1920s who contributed significantly to the settling of the West. Bilalian is synonymous for “African American” and is associated with Bilal, the first minister of Islam; the word connotes courage and strength.
Honey in the Bee Ball is a joyful array of portraits surrounding Dawson Park, long a cultural hub of Portland’s African American community. The phrase “honey in the bee ball, I can’t see y’all” was used in the South during the game of hide-and-seek, synonymous to “ready or not, here I come.” For these portraits, Shamsud-Din states: “My humble testament and homage to a few African American men and women whose works vividly portray the highest ideals. Spirit, courage, creative, resilient, resourceful are just some attributes that apply.”
Gathering information on the murals could not have happened without close collaboration with Shamsud-Din, the support of the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), and the partnership of Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot Portland.