Two families are facing each other, but the intent of one giving their newborn child to the other family. This was dyed on leather.
Winfred Rembert (American, 1945-2021), The Beginning (detail), 2002, dye on carved and tooled leather. Gift of funds from Mary and Bob Mersky 2022.51

“I wanted people to know”: The moving history behind Winfred Rembert’s “The Beginning”

By Diane Richard //

Winfred Rembert had a tumultuous life in which he experienced the full force of American racism. At 19, he survived a near-lynching and spent seven years incarcerated. He started to draw in prison. He later married, had eight children with his wife Patsy, and began making art based on his life story.

Winfred Rembert, American, 1945-2021. The Beginning (detail), 2002. Dye on carved and tooled leather. Gift of funds from Mary and Bob Mersky 2022.51

The scene he remarkably captured in The Beginning, in his signature style of tooled and dyed leather, imaginatively recreates a crucial moment in his life: his birth mother’s decision to turn him over to the care of her aunt, Lillian Rembert. She raised Rembert as her own child in Cuthbert, Georgia, among the cotton fields. Rows and rows of white-tipped cotton plants would later figure in much of Rembert’s leather work. Basing this scene on family stories, he also brought his talent for character building and narrative to bear on this emotionally charged moment.

In his 2021 memoir, Chasing Me to the Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, for which he posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize, Rembert described the scene:

“I wanted people to know where I came from. Lillian’s son, Boy, is standing there across from his wife, Candy Lee. Candy Lee is all dressed up. That’s the way she was. I wonder what was going through everybody’s mind. I know nothing good was going through Candy Lee’s mind, and I imagine my mother was scared. She knew her husband, Jerry, was coming home and she didn’t know what he was thinking. Or maybe she did know what he was thinking. When he first heard the news, he could have been not liking it. It could be that’s why my mother gave me away. The picture shows my mother, Nancy Mae, handing me to Lillian. And Lillian—Mama—reaches out to take me.”

Mia acquired the artwork last year. Robert Cozzolino, Mia’s Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings, says the artwork “helps broaden Mia’s collection of Black artists and adds to the ways we tell the stories of artists, their lives, and their communities. Among the earliest works by Rembert, it already shows his compositional skill, attention to detail, and narrative capacity. Profoundly personal, it opens up ways of discussing family, adoption, memories, and the experiences of women.”