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Just as there's a too-muchness to this whole disaster, so that it's hard to wrap your mind around it or find words, the poignant ironies abounding in Richards's art are inherently overdramatic. He'd been creating images of pilots, planes, and luggage for years, however. His particular interest was the Tuskegee airmen, a famed World War II unit of African American fighter pilots. Still, what does one say now about a sculpture (circa 1997) called Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He's Watching Me)?
Richards had a piece in the "Passages" exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1999 called Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, the sculpture of a Tuskegee airman whose body has been pierced, not with Sebastian's arrows, but with small, dartlike airplanes.
In Kocache's assessment, "He's talking about men who were alienated and unacknowledged, using that for his own existential feelings as a black man, an artist, an immigrant [from Jamaica]. But these pieces also represent a generosity that is unacknowledged, tossed away. He's talking about someone's dislocation from culture."
That description casts light on certain new post-disaster dangers. Kocache, who happens to be Lebanese American, spent September 12 looking for Richards, making the now ritual trek that begins at Bellevue Hospital. In the middle of this search, he was verbally attacked on the street, spat on, called "a fucking Arab." A cop watched with his arms folded. "No one would come to my rescue," says Kocache. "I have never felt so alone."
Richards had composed an artistic statement, found in his computer and passed along by a friend. He notes that the Tuskegee airmen fought for democracy in the sky, but faced discrimination on the ground. They "serve as symbols of failed transcendence and loss of faith," wrote Richards, "escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators always seeking home.