Kenyon College

Canary (For Rita Dove)


Canary (for Rita Dove). 1991.

Oil stick and gesso on panel.

80 x 30 inches.

Courtesy of the Progressive Corporate Art Collection.


Glenn Ligon is well known for his paintings in black type on white ground, sometimes smudged nearly to the point of illegibility, as seen here.  Filled with socio-political overtones these works focus on the distorted or fragmented sense of identity sometimes associated with black experience. The repeating line of text, “If you can’t be free be a mystery,” refers to the last line of the poem entitled “Canary” by African-American poet Rita Dove (see below).  Inspired by a Billie Holiday performance, the poem evokes dichotomies of dark and light and Holiday’s reported drug use (spoon and needle).  Forced into the stereotype of a damsel in distress, the poet suggests women cultivate mystery in response to a lack of freedom. Canary (for Rita Dove) is very similar to Ligon’s 1992 Black Like Me No. 2, selected by President Obama for the White House collection and installed in his family’s private living quarters.  Pulitzer Prize winner Dove, born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, was named the first African American U.S. Poet Laureate in 1993.


Glenn Ligon studied at The Rhode Island School of Design, Wesleyan University and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.  He has been exhibiting his work since 1982, and was included in both the prestigious 1991 and 1993 Whitney Biennial exhibitions. He is a recipient of numerous grants including a National Endowment for the Arts Artists Fellowship Grant. 


Caleb Bissinger ’13

Gund Gallery Associate



by Rita Dove


for Michael S. Harper


Billie Holiday’s burned voice

had as many shadows as lights,

a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,

the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.


(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,   

magic spoon, magic needle.

Take all day if you have to

with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)


Fact is, the invention of women under siege   

has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.


 If you can’t be free, be a mystery.


–Rita Dove, “Canary” from Grace Notes, 1989.