Untitled, from the Tuskegee Airmen Series, 1997
In his short life, the artist Michael Richards often created work related to the struggles and triumphs of African Americans. He spent nearly ten years, for example, on a series of sculptures dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black aviators—named for their base in Tuskegee, Alabama—who during World War II became the first African American military pilots in the history of the United States. For this particular sculpture, as with others in the series, Richards made a fiberglass mold of his own body and then pierced the work with nails (other sculptures in the series are impaled by toy airplanes). The sculpture thus refers both to Christian iconography (St. Sebastian, depicted with a body full of arrows) and to African objects known as nkisi nkondi (an example of which, on view in the Museum’s African Art galleries, is illustrated here).
In a tragic and eerie twist of fate, Michael Richards was working as an artist-in-residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council at its studios in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, and died in the attack on Tower 1. He did not live to witness the surviving Tuskegee Airmen receive the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal, on March 29, 2007.