Make no mistake. I have a genuine love of wax. I would have loved to have been able to visit Coney Island's World in Wax Museum. Madame Tussaud's in London, Mexico City, and New York are slick but satisfying. Berlin's Gruselkabinett's dusty offerings are spiced up with people in costume who's job is to provide the scares that the wax figures cannot. At their worst (though I sometimes enjoy this too) they can provide howlingly bad interpretations of famous people that are nowhere near accurate. At their best they can bend time and history to create impossible scenarios. One fine example: Madame Tussaud's in London showcases their Henry the 8th literally surrounded by his wives (with their heads intact.) Now after waiting, finagling, and outright begging, a Mahogany door opened to reveal the the Treasures of Raven Chanticleer. His life's works. Heaped together and locked away in a sweltering, crowded parlor in the height of summer.
It was exhilarating to see them. At last! After many calls and fearing that they had been spirited away to an unknown destination they were here, standing in the heat and dark. Waiting, perhaps?
But one thing I had not anticipated was the density of their hiding place. I had to face the fact that the kind of portraits I had envisioned making when trying to gain access to the museum simply could not be created. I could only move a few inches into the room at all. This was jarring. In wax museums figures are given places of honor and often a velvet rope. They are displayed as works of art in which considerable time and expense has been lavished. If they are to be allowed to be touched, it is only with care and under a guard's watchful eye, and typically only as part of a tourist's photograph.
Raven's sculptures were literally caught in a tidal wave of overturned chairs, tables, clothes, paintings, and even more figures. An occasional head and/or limb peaked out from behind the body of a wax notable. Strange shadows promised glimpses of more luminaries, but they could not be released from darkness. My flash picked out grand church hats and dusty glasses, handmade lace collars and Kente cloth scarves - but only for a moment. To the right of the doorway, about 6 feet in, but still impossible to access, the room bore a few shafts of sunlight streamed through stained glass behind half covered windows.The right of the room was roomy but far more dense.
When I shoot, I typically become hyper aware. My eye focuses and I stay in the moment, but here my mind teamed with questions. When the Florence Griffith-Joyner figure's splendid red Lycra track outfit attracted me, I wondered if Raven created her as a tribute in the height of her fame, or as a memorial to her untimely death. Both came so quickly. How did he decide how tall to make Harriet Tubman? Did he use some of his own fine jackets to attire Malcolm X and Magic Johnson? Where was the Black Madonna I had heard so much about? If she was present, she was not visible. I tried to pick out the unseen among them, checking off a roll call in my mind. Just a glimpse. A few minutes access. And then it was time to go.
Photos of Raven's museum as it stood in his day showcased each one's unique character and attributes. On one hand it was intriguing to see the juxtaposition of each icon literally and figuratively landlocked this way. They once had space to be truly admired, but now these icons had fallen upon hard times with uncertain futures. But it was unbearably sad to see them hidden away from the world. This was a fate that their creator could never have envisioned for himself. Then again, maybe he did...