Stargazer at the Smithsonian
Retired Goddard Space Flight Center Art Director Maceo Leatherwood will have the honor and privilege of seeing his lithograph “Mo’Paklahoma,” also known as “Mo’Pak,” in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. As expressed in the acceptance letter from the Kevin Gover (Pawnee), Director of the museum, Mo’Pak “now belongs to the American people.” Mo’Pak will also be part of a traveling exhibit of both the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of African American History and Culture, called “IndiVisible”.
The forward of the companion book “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” written by Gover and Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Director, National Museum of African American History and Culture, describes the traveling exhibit as more than a repository; it is the beginning of a “conversation,” one which is “examining the complicated and very human concept of identity: who we are and where―and to whom―we belong.”
Says Leatherwood, “Everything in my life leads to Mo’Pak. Because Mo’Pak is now in the Smithsonian, it is now part of our history.”
So who exactly is Maceo Leatherwood? His maternal grandparents were Maryland African-Algonquians. His paternal grandparents were North Carolina Anglo-Iroquoians. Dualism exists everywhere, as it does in him.
Both the man Leatherwood and his art are replete with symbolism. “Hopefully when you look at a painting of mine, you see three or four meanings and statements about life in America,” explains Leatherwood.
Leatherwood further explains that “Mo” is a contraction of “Moors” as in the blacks from Northern Africa. “Paklahoma” refers to Oklahoma, the place to which President Jackson removed the Native Americans and their African slaves. “Pak,” an acronym which is Leatherwood’s personal tribute to his paternal grandfather, is derived from the languages of Southwestern, Plains, and Eastern Woodland tribes. Mo’Pak is one of twelve in a series; the rest of which can be viewed on his Web site.
A zebra merely represents Africa to most people. But, as Leatherwood further explains, “Mo’Pak is about survival. Zebras are all about survival.” He pointed out that a type of prehistoric zebra was indigenous to America. Leatherwood concludes that he painted “an indigenous people with an indigenous equine.” He notes that it is important that the zebra is moving, traveling.
Leatherwood says, “I love the Sun.” The bold color blocks lit by the sun in all directions compose the background. He continues, saying, “I love the images of native chiefs for various reasons.” At first glance, the rider appears to be a Chief. But he has no face. “This Indian is a stargazer. His face is the North Star, a stargazer. He is a traveler. All travelers are stargazers. And Hubble, NASA’s space telescope, my last and favorite project at Goddard, is also a stargazer,” explains Leatherwood. Noting that NASA is represented in most of his paintings, Leatherwood indicates the two star constellations in the upper right quadrant of the painting.
He is very careful to point out that the moving zebra and its Chieftain rider are traveling. “The blue at the bottom is a river, which symbolizes travel for most Native Americans,” says Leatherwood. He further explains that “the flying Eagle is also traveling.” The themes of stargazers and travelers are very important to Leatherwood. “My images always are stargazers. The faces are not masks, they say something more. The stars are beyond you. When you travel, you are always looking for something.”
Leatherwood continues, “Stargazing crosses over from all times and all peoples. Hubble looks at stars. The stargazer’s face and the stars in the background focus the painting on stars. They call me a traveling artist. I’m described in this painting by three things: stargazing, traveler, and Mo’Pak.” He concludes, “Mo’Pak could be my legacy.”
How fitting, then, that the traveling artist’s traveling stargazer Mo’Pak is in the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit “IndiVisible.”
“Mo’Pak” and other works can be viewed on Leatherwood’s Website, at: http://www.maceoleatherwood.com.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.