Melvin Edwards is best known for his sculptural series Lynch Fragments, which span across three periods: the early 1960s, when he responded to racial violence in the United States; the early 1970s, when his activism concerning the Vietnam War motivated him to return to the series; and from 1978 to the present, when he began honoring individuals, exploring notions of nostalgia, and investigating his personal interest in African culture. As small wall reliefs, the Lynch Fragments bridge a gap between painting and sculpture, and often incorporate bases of solid geometrical shapes that create a stable visual foundation for the complex forms rendered from welding objects such as chains, hammers, nails, padlocks, scissors, spikes, and wrenches. The dimensions and placement of the works are crucial to their effect, evoking the human head and the attendant complexities and nuances of identity, both personal and—with their suggestion of African masks—political.
Recognized as a pioneer in the history of contemporary African-American art and sculpture, Edwards’ approach to welding began in 1960 while studying at the University of Southern California. Drawn to making assemblages of individual parts both found and created, he noticed that the objects suggested forms, reinforcing the relationship between material and image that has since become a foundation of the artist’s oeuvre. Further, Edwards looked to the use of these steel industrial and agricultural objects to lend varying cultural, social, and political connotations to his sculptures’ modernist structures. As the artist remarks, sculpture ”...seemed to me a more direct way to deal with the inner subject. Sculpture allowed me to put in, in a more natural way, things that people were saying you weren't supposed to put in art, like race and politics. It allowed me to think more literally in those ways but have it come out in the work abstractly.”
The series includes work across five decades and highlights the artist’s exploration of intersectional identity, social justice, and political awareness. As curator Michael Brenson noted, “Being an abstract sculptor enables Edwards to be specific, yet move in many directions at once. It enables him to weld into the history of art the particular histories that touch him and at the same time argue for the need to transform the world and liberate the imagination.” While each lynch fragment is representative of its original function, its significance multiplies as the objects acquire compositional vitality; everything destructive signifies the possibility of liberation and creation. Edwards’ prolonged incorporation of chains and barbed wire into his sculptures speak to this notion, with their dual connotations to the history of slavery and oppression, yet also to the links between people—the act of storytelling from one generation to another—and cultures, which the artist evokes through his incorporation of African agricultural tools in a number autobiographical sculptures that reference his life in America.
Many of the Lynch Fragments reflect Edwards' engagement with and influence of Africa. Edwards' first visits in the 1970s coincided with a key moment in the region's history as recently independent countries defined their postcolonial identities. Eventually establishing a studio in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, the region has nurtured his investigations of metalwork, history, language, cultural exchanges, and the significance of personal relationships. Central to this is Edwards’ relationship with his late wife and artistic collaborator, the poet Jayne Cortez, who introduced him to the region and accompanied him during his visits. Together they shared a mutual admiration for the musicality of percussion, and often translated the effects of sound into their respective visual and written words. Edwards’ choice of medium, steel, solidifies the intention of each sculpture. Through the welding process, the objects, now indestructible and multi-faceted, unite to evoke a sense of permanence for his nostalgia.