James Drake’s practice is fueled by his interest in the various forms of language. The imagery of this work was inspired by the interactions between convicts in the El Paso County Detention Facility and their separated loved ones as well as the eighteenth-century Christian hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which is about forgiveness, redemption, and the power of faith to set prisoners free. While living and working in El Paso, Texas, Drake encountered a community of women who would regularly gather outside the prison walls and attempt, through mock sign language, to convey messages of longing to friends and family members inside. The artist’s haunting interpretation culminates in a spiral of hands converging to form a black hole of yearning and desire. This work is part of a larger series of drawings and connected to the video installation Tongue-Cut Sparrows—also in the museum’s collection—which takes its title from a Japanese folktale about a spiteful old woman who cuts the tongue of her husband’s beloved pet bird. Despite this, the bird was miraculously still able to sing. Here, hand gestures resemble birds in flight who, unlike the women, can soar beyond the walls and speak.
Label from Drawing: The Beginning of Everything, July 8–October 15, 2017