A memorial to Civil Rights martyrs

Thornton Dial's unflinching Blood and Meat

Thornton Dial, Blood and Meat: Survival For The World, 1992, rope, carpet, copper wire, metal, canvas scraps, enamel, and splash zone compound on canvas on wood, 165.1 x 241.3 x 27.9 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, ©Thornton Dial), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Timothy Anglin Burgard, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Dr. Beth Harris

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DIal, Blood and Meat

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Key points

  • Under discriminatory Jim Crow laws, freed slaves had few options in the post-Civil War, agrarian South. Many became sharecroppers, entering into agreements that were little more than forced labor. Sharecroppers were at the mercy of the landlord’s recordkeeping, which left them frequently in heavy debt and subject to arrest if they attempted to leave their leased land. Sharecropping remained a widespread practice until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • Thornton Dial combines multiple levels of meaning in this painted assemblage, which references the dangerous path taken by Civil Rights activists. The use of unraveled rope carpets evokes his childhood poverty, but also images of bondage and lynching. The tiger and the faces that are hidden throughout the work reference Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, Emmett Till, and others. His goal is to confront the viewer with this history and remind us that these issues still need to be addressed in today’s world.

Go deeper

See this work at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Learn more about the injustices of the sharecropping system

Explore the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Learn more about President John F. Kennedy’s role in the Civil Rights movement

Read Robert Kennedy’s 1963 report on the state of civil rights in America

Read or hear more about the murder of Emmett Till

Read the stories of other martyrs of the Civil Rights movement

Learn more about Thornton Dial and watch a documentary about him

Consider Dial’s position as a self-taught artist in museums and the art world

More to think about

In the video, the speakers describe Dial’s painting as “visceral.” What does this word mean and how do you see it applying to this work of art? Consider the visual and emotional impact of the Dial’s imagery, materials, and even the title Blood and Meat: Survival for the World. Why might Dial—and other artists recounting African-American history in the U.S.—want to evoke ideas of the visceral in their work?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.