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Thornton Dial, Sr. 

American, 1928 – 2016

Scratching for Life, 1998

Paint and gravel on wood

Collection of Doug McCraw


What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

During a recent panel discussion on Thornton Dial, Anne Collins Smith recited a quote from Nobel Prize winning Nigerian author and democracy activist, Wole Soyinka: 

“A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.”

The tigers in Dial’s creations demand the viewer’s attention in paintings such as, “Scratching for Life”, seen here. They rise to oppose evil forces in assemblages such as, “No Right in the Wrong”, and they serve as observers (or possibly guardians) in works on paper such as, “Holding Up the Roses”. 

In his April 1994 Artforum review of the book, “Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger”, Robert Farris Thompson wrote:

“In ancient Kongo, the theme of the feline equally underscored powers of confidence and mastery, as in the phrase Ngó ka ye nkanda?, Is there a leopard within the clan?, meaning, Do we not have a king to rule over us, seated in glory on the skin of a great cat?”

Dial’s tigers convey a vivid presence whether they dominate the composition or linger in the margins, sometimes representing the struggles of Black people, sometimes standing in for the artist himself.