The Characters in Ernie Barne’s Sugar Shack.

There is movement and sound in his paintings, a culture in the poise of each subject. Music and entertainment at the heart.

He is Ernie Barnes (1938 – 2009), the artist behind the cover for Marvin Gaye’s be ‘I Want You’ album (1976) – my favourite piece, so much so that I have imagined a story for the subject that stands out to me the most, the sister in the red dress.

“The Sugar Shack is a recall of a childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it. To show that African-Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension.” – Ernie Barnes.

For the people of Durham, the weeks leading up to The Annual Sugar Shack were like the months leading up to hibernation for the hedgehog. Preparation, preparation, preparation. Thoughts of dates, the potential suitors that may be present, using the art of DIY to create the flyest outfits and mastering the footwork of the latest jive.

For one woman, in particular, the dance was her time to shine. The sister in red. She made her dress from scratch using her mother’s special silk sheets, fear of punishment was not going to be enough to deter her. She would take the risk for the day almost as momentous as the day of her birth.

Every night when the lights went out for bedtime, she would weave new stitches into her garment of passion. Under, over, backstitch and gently pull, over, under backstitch and gently pull. She had overheard a conversation in the hair salon she worked at on weekends, the women waiting for their roller curls to set spoke of red being Marvin Gaye’s favourite colour.

She chose the red hoping that the universe might recognize her efforts and align the stars in favour of their union. This year she would dance for Marvin Gaye, as he performed her favourite song – ‘I Want You’. It would be love at first sight, he would heal her lonely heart and she his weariness.

Olivia is her name, a rare flower. Music is her place of refuge and dance is her freedom. When she steps her eyes close as though her spirit has left her, her dance partners move in awe, as though it proceeds to engulf their souls.

She maneuvers her way around the room, owning the floor, never staying with one man for too long – they might fall in love and with Marvin on his way, there is just no time for that.

Dance Olivia, dance for when you return home you know not what awaits you. Dance Olivia, dance for this may be the last time.

Dance Olivia, dance until you can no longer move. Let your hips go Olivia, let your spirit roar.

Let the music take you Olivia, for tonight all your troubles they rest. Find your lover Olivia, who knows what tomorrow may bring.

Words by Charisse Chikwiri.