Reverberation Is Memory Felt: Drexciya and Aliveness at the Absolute DepthsLegacy Russell and Jesús Hilario-Reyes in conversation with Stella Rae Binion

I'll start with an imprint. The mark of a life, burrowing itself into the rough skin of time. An index of flesh and feeling etched into a centurial being.

If you look closely enough, you'll see it. There, on the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, a slight buckle in a building's facade where the fingerprints of an enslaved brickmaker—one of the fifteen who made the 900,000 bricks used to construct that structure—refused to mask his work.1 An intractable residue of labor quite literally sealed in stone. An indentation haunted with the press/ure of Black being and making. This imprint is not supposed to be there: the buildings would be majestic, would announce themselves, but the terrible fact of how they came to be would have to remain quiet. A secret tucked behind all those thick layers of Neoclassical Jeffersonian architecture, all the “great” American intellect sealed therein.

This fingerprint is my monument. A Black presence endures.

Imprint of anonymous enslaved fingers at the UVA Rotunda. Image courtesy of Mabel O. Wilson.
Imprint of anonymous enslaved fingers at the UVA Rotunda. Image courtesy of Mabel O. Wilson.

I do not know the name of the person who laid that brick on that lawn, so I will cherish this other language of presence instead. No name to hold, so I hold the negative space created in the throes of contact between wet brick and thumb or index finger. A reliquary made of weight, work, and a life that insistently testifies to the fact that it was lived. A gift to the horizon of years.

When I learned of this anonymous Black mason, I thought of the artist Martin Puryear and the way he has used bricks to make a sculpture about eternity.

Forgive me for the drama, but with Puryear, I cannot help but succumb to reverence. A kind of breathless feeling of having arrived somewhere in harmony with the sacred. It is the artist's own reverence—his utter, undying devotion to the materials that he works with, their poetics, and the craft that they make possible—that I find so precious, so prone to prayer-full encounters. His is a practice that truly honors the traditions of making that it springs from: masonry, woodworking, welding. But Puryear isn't just knowledgeable about these craft traditions, he inhabits them with every part of himself. In his own words: “my creativity flows from my brain through my hands to the work.”2

Things were textured with a certain lucidity on that Wednesday afternoon when dear Camille Bacon and I headed upstate from Grand Central to visit Puryear's newly commissioned sculpture, Lookout (2023), at Storm King Art Center. It was during that beautiful juncture of autumn when the leaves are quivering with decisive readiness to fall. The air seemed lined with a particular clarity, urging me toward a witnessing that is rare in its depth and wholeness. We made our way to the top of the hill where the sculpture sits. And so it was. We came and we witnessed.

Martin Puryear, Lookout, 2023. Image courtesy of Storm King Art Center.
Martin Puryear, Lookout, 2023. Image courtesy of Storm King Art Center.

Casting its interminable gaze out into the hills, soaking in the cool sun, the first thing to know about Lookout, is that it plans to live a very long life. Puryear believes it will outlast the institutional life of Storm King itself. I believe this too. The installation, which is more of an architecture that one steps inside of than a sculpture that one looks at, was made using the kind of materials that laugh in the face of time, that only know tenacious ways of being. It is made of red bricks that are sutured together with an exceptionally durable kind of hydraulic cement sourced from Rosendale, NY.3 Because of the particular chemical composition of this cement, during its construction, Lookout grew in strength with each layer, and will continue to get stronger as the cement fully cures—a process that can take up to twelve months.4 Imagine all that we can learn from a material that gets stronger as it gets older.

The second thing to know about Lookout is that it seems, at first, to live a paradox of form and physics. The architecture of the thing, once comprehended, will make you shudder in awe of what it means for the ostensibly impossible to make itself manifest, and undeniably so. Lookout was conceived out of an ancient masonry technique known as Nubian vaulting, which Puryear originally encountered during a trip to Mali.5 I am still wrapping my head around this wonder of design: the layers of red clay bricks are nestled together by way of a method that allows them to build in undulation. Nubian vaulting rebukes the rigid and unyielding verticality that one would typically expect of a brick structure and, instead, beckons Lookout to curve in double: its opening arches like the mouth of a tunnel, but then it pivots toward the heavens, up with the vertical curve of a dome. It is shaped like an invitation for embrace.

Inside of <i>Lookout</i>. Image courtesy of Storm King Art Center.
Inside of Lookout. Image courtesy of Storm King Art Center.

It's a shape I've never seen before and I couldn't have imagined before I saw it. For starters, it is a wholly impractical thing to do: who would think to use rectilinear bricks to assemble a curved material? A rounded thing made of straightness? Right. Leave it to the Black aesthetic tradition to delight in the non-utilitarian way of doing things, to steal the logic of your crushing linearity and make it swell with supple shape.

All curving and careening, Lookout is Blackness at an angle. It is an architecture for those of us who are enduringly wayward, who perpetually insist on going with the curves. Black being always at a tilt, like those bricks and all their doming. A swerve that disrupts those ideological architectures of hard-edged rigidity which keep trying to bend us out of shape.

I'm obsessed with the way that Puryear's sculpture makes time curve too. The way that it is made with an ancient technique yet already so aware of its future, already prepared to outlive me.

Lookout reminds me of what I know about time—that it is frenzied and errant, that it dances in wild circles, that it pushes and pulls back and forth—which incarnates a set of questions about physics. Recently, I have been looking to the physicist and queer feminist Karen Barad, who has made it possible for me to love science. In one of their writings, Barad explains a phenomenon known as temporal diffraction: a principle in quantum physics that describes the way that particles can exist in multiple temporalities at the same time.6

Under the framework of classical physics, only waves are capable of producing diffraction—the pattern of spread and enlargement that is formed when quantum matter meets an obstacle.7 However, as Niels Bohr discovered, quantum physics tells us that particles like electrons, neutrons, and atoms are also capable of wave-like behavior.8 Thus, akin to waves, they too can diffract. They too can stretch across many places at once. When particles behave like waves and diffract, they produce what's known as a state of superposition, wherein a particle simultaneously exists between several positions in space.9 According to Barad, particles can also produce a temporal diffraction in which they are “indeterminately coexisting at multiple times—for example, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”10

In describing the capacity of quantum matter to exist multiply in times, Barad upends everything I presumed to be fundamental to existence and time. Their words dance within my memory of Lookout: “Here-now and there-then have become unmoored,”11 they write, and I think of the way that all times burst out from Puryear's architecture, the way the particulate matter of his deeply historic materials exist in anticipation of their own future. Something like a superposition of time(s) is intrinsic to the fiber of Lookout's being.

I think also of the whole matter of the structures' curves and angles. I look at them and trace those microscopic ripples of concavity that are produced when a particle diffracts, when its seemingly coherent, localized existence ripples. And the ripple of that fingerprint at the Rotunda in Virginia: a curve much larger than quantum particles but smaller than Lookout, a curve at the scale of touch. They are talking to each other, these defiant shapes. Particles acting like waves, bricks acting like diffracted particles, and a finger bending the shape of memory. Matter misbehaving, Black like me.12

As Puryear teaches us, and as our aforementioned, anonymous, steadfast co-conspirator in Virginia reveals, the vibration of Black life teems from those quantum particles that Barad writes of. Indeed, Blackness is always rhyming with the universe and vice versa. Arcing and overlapping into curves of multiplicity and endurance. The charge of Black life is always mattering itself through endurance by any means necessary. The marks of Black being persist, inextinguishable, irreducible, and slanted. Yes, we will bear down on your architecture for hundreds of years. We will encode our presence at universities, on hilltops, in museums. Can't erase the fullness of us. Can't extinguish our will to bend and curve in the midst of it all.

Call us fungible if you wish, but you can't dispose of us when we're written into everything around you.

When we endure and endure. At all angles possible.

1 I learned of this imprint at a talk by architectural historian Mabel O. Wilson at the Center for Art Researches and Alliances in New York. For more on enslaved labor at the University of Virginia, see Mitch Farish, “Behind Serpentine Walls: Centering Enslaved Laborers at UVA,” UVA Library News and Announcements (blog), January 25, 2022,

2 “Storm King : Exhibition : Martin Puryear: Process and Scale [EXH.152],” accessed March 8, 2024,

3 Personal correspondence with Adela Goldsmith, Curatorial Assistant at Storm King.

4 Ibid

5 “Storm King : Exhibition : Martin Puryear: Lookout [EXH.149],” accessed March 8, 2024,

6 Karen Barad, “Troubling Time/s and Ecologies of Nothingness: Re-Turning, Re-Membering, and Facing the Incalculable,”New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 92, no. 1 (2018): 56–86.

7 Ibid

8 Ibid

9 Ibid

10 Ibid, 67

11 Karen Barad, “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/Continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come,” Derrida Today 3, no. 2 (November 2010): 240–68,

12 “Black like me” is culled from the final line of Langston Hughes's Dream Variations, originally published in 1924.