IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Acquires Diptych by Samuel Levi Jones

The Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University has acquired the diptych Poplar Trees (2015) from artist Samuel Levi Jones. Composed of cloth covers from discarded law books and encyclopedias, the work responds to the lynching of two Black teenagers, Tom Shipp and Abe Smith, on August 7, 1930, in Jones’s hometown of Marion, Indiana. The widely distributed photograph of the murders, taken by Lawrence Beitler, inspired the poem Bitter Fruit by Abel Meeropol, which was later made famous as lyrics sung by Billie Holiday. Titled after the state’s tulip poplar trees, the composition refers to two Black figures surrounded by a mass of white onlookers. The “skinned” covers of discarded law books emphasize the legal system that enabled such an injustice to occur. The work enhances the museum’s growing collection of contemporary art by artists of color, as well as a collection of work by Indiana artists. As an interpretation of a shameful event in Indiana’s history, Poplar Trees facilitates important reflections on the past as well as discussions about persisting inequalities.

Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert, the Eskenazi Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, commented: “I have long admired the work of Samuel Levi Jones and have been grateful to engage him with Indiana University and the museum as a past guest speaker and artist resident. Welcoming this major work into our collection reflects our commitment to supporting Indiana artists and addressing the fraught racial legacies of our state.”

Born and raised in Marion, Indiana, Jones trained as a photographer and multidisciplinary artist, earning a BA in communication studies from Taylor University, a BFA from Herron School of Art and Design, and an MFA in studio art from Mills College. His work is informed by historical source material and early modes of representation in documentary practice. In his work, Jones explores the framing of power structures and the struggles between exclusion and equality by desecrating historical material, then re-imagining new works to investigate issues of manipulation and the rejection of control in a broad sense.

In 2014, Jones was awarded the Joyce Alexander Wein artist prize by the Studio Museum in Harlem. His work is in prominent private and public collections, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Rubell Family Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Of the acquisition, Wilma E. Kelley Director David A. Brenneman said, “I am grateful to the artist for enabling the Indiana University Eskenazi Museum of Art to share Poplar Trees with current and future generations of IU students and faculty and for the opportunity to use this important work of art to create meaningful dialogue within our community. As an aesthetic act of remembrance and reflection, this work demonstrates the transformational power of art to open our minds and our hearts.”

The Eskenazi Museum of Art is grateful to the C. W. & M. Long Art Purchase Fund, Elisabeth P. Myers Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, and David Phillips for their support of this acquisition.

About the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art

Since its establishment in 1941, the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art has grown from a small university teaching collection into one of the most significant university art collections in the United States. A preeminent teaching museum on the Indiana University campus, its internationally acclaimed collection includes more than 45,000 objects representing nearly every art-producing culture throughout history from around the world.

The Eskenazi Museum of Art recently completed a $30 million renovation of its acclaimed I. M. Pei–designed building. The newly renovated museum is an enhanced teaching resource for Indiana University and southern Indiana. The museum is dedicated to engaging students, faculty, artists, scholars, alumni, and the wider public through the cultivation of new ideas and scholarship.

CONTACT: Mariah Keller, Director of Creative Services