Lives Lost: A Struggle Site Presents the Complexity and Complicity of Anti-Black Violence

Darryl Cowherd, “Keep the White Police from Killing Us – St. Louis, MO,” c. 1966-67. Gelatin silver print, image: 15 x 19 in., mat: 20 x 24 ¼ in., paper 16 x 20 in. © Darryl Cowherd/image courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Photography

There is power in creating images. Culture is shaped by the stories it tells about itself – and who records those stories, and how they record them, has undue influence. “A Site of Struggle,” presented at the Block Museum, tackles this conceit head-on, with a concise historical exhibition of artists who have struggled to represent and respond to anti-Black violence.

Curated by Janet Dees, Block’s modern and contemporary art curator Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum, the exhibition brings together the works of more than thirty artists and activists, from the 1890s to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. In a video interview, Alisa Swindell, a former curatorial research associate at The Block who helped with the exhibit, says she was drawn to working on the exhibit because of the importance of showing audiences that the struggle against anti-black violence is nothing new. “There have always been people in the fight,” she says. “And a lot of those people have been artists.”

Elizabeth Catlett, “Target Practice,” Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana. Purchased by the Amistad Research Center/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Rarely have I been to an exhibition as carefully planned as this. Concerned about the heaviness of the subject, the museum has set up seats throughout the exhibition, separated from other visitors by screens. There is a reflection room for quiet contemplation, with accompanying guided meditation, a resource area with more information, as well as an opportunity to leave comments, and a self-care guide designed for black visitors. He installed signage to indicate the graphic subject and endeavored to put this material out of sight for those who did not wish to see it.

Carl and Karen Pope, “Palimpsest”, 1998-99, photo video/image: courtesy of the artist

The most demanding visual work is set apart in its own room. Titled “A Red Record”, after an 1895 anti-lynching pamphlet by Ida B. Wells, the section is the only place where violent acts, including lynching, are visually depicted. It is in this room that “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” by Pat Ward Williams is presented, one of the most powerful pieces of the show. Williams got the idea for the job while looking at an issue of Life magazine from 1955. One page contained an almost contextless black-and-white photograph of a brutalized black man in a wooded area, chained to a tree, his arms tied with a rope behind his back. The photo was uncredited, but the caption made the artist hesitate. It read: “Deadly fall at Mississippi lynching. But the magazine photo didn’t show the man being lynched – it showed him after being burned with a blowtorch, presumably about to be lynched. The caption, while carefully saying very little, alludes to many things, such as the fact that the lynchings were public spectacles of violence, with people regularly tortured and beaten before being hanged, that the spectators were often also participants active in violence.

Williams installed the torn magazine page in part of a horizontal wooden frame; the frame resembles a four-paned window or door. The other three panes are filled with enlarged details from the photo: the unnamed man’s bound hands, his burned back, his chained torso leaning against a tree. Williams rewrote the caption, emphasizing the crowd’s actions: “Charged in 1937 for the murder of a white man from Mississippi, this black man was tortured with a blowtorch and lynched.” The window is mounted on black tar paper, on which the artist has written a response to the sight of this image, mostly a series of increasingly incredulous questions: “WHO took this photo? Couldn’t he just as easily let the man go? Another question, “Can you be black and watch this without fear?” cunningly asks why Life magazine would publish such an image. For the artist, this reads as a form of social control. To flip a page from a mainstream magazine, like Life, and see, nestled amidst advertisements for an angel food mix and an article about the Shah of Iran’s Miami Beach vacation, an image of violence horrible against a black person is to normalize this image. In such a context, it serves to desensitize a white reader; to a black reader it could only be read as a warning.

As the exhibit makes clear, images of violence against black people are not new. In 2020, the harrowing video of George Floyd’s gasping for breath was released around the world. In the last century, lynching photographs and postcards were common – white people posed for photos in front of the murdered person, like hunters showing off their prey. Today, it is increasingly common for social media users to ask others not to share graphic images after incidents of anti-Black or racially motivated violence. These images can be triggering and retraumatizing. We often don’t know what the impetus is to share such images, to turn black pain, or death, into another image to be consumed. It’s clear that spreading such images doesn’t work to end racism, or convince racists that anti-black violence is real, it’s vile. (2021 data shows that of the 1,055 people shot dead by police last year, twenty-seven percent were black, despite blacks making up only thirteen percent of the population; in 2021, black people were twice as likely as white people to be shot by police.) As Williams implies in his article, which recirculates the Life photo, context is everything. She argues that it is appropriate to reproduce such an image if done in a thoughtful way – to raise awareness, to contextualize current violence, to engage the viewer in an idle consumption of racist violence.

Above all, most of the works here do not reproduce such images. The museum stresses, in its didactics, on its website and in an informational video at the end of the exhibition, that the important work of learning about the history of our nation is not only done through graphic images of violence. Many artists here use subtle methods or abstract compositions to depict both anti-black violence and resistance to that violence.

“Heirlooms and Accessories,” a 2002 work by Kerry James Marshall, portrays lynching in a less obvious light. In three oversized inkjet prints, Marshall took a 1930 photograph of a lynching in Indiana and focused on the faces of three individual women who turned to face the camera. Marshall encased their faces in ornate frames at the end of necklaces. The artist implicates them as accomplices in the crime in question, while referring to family and societal values, including white supremacy, which are transmitted from generation to generation.

Emory Douglas, “November 16, 1972”, 1972 © 2021 Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Many of the works on display have an explicit connection to Chicago, from the inclusion of works by Marshall, Theaster Gates and Chicago-affiliated artists like Elizabeth Catlett and David Antonio Cruz to photographs by Bob Crawford and Darryl Cowherd depicting the neo-Nazi protests of the 1960s on the south side to historic materials on Ida B. Wells. It is hoped that the local connections will help viewers understand the city’s history with racial violence and anti-racism organizing and how that history impacts civic life today. The exhibition clearly shows that violence against black people has deep roots in this country. As Northwestern history professor Leslie Harris, who was an advisor on the exhibit, posits in a video by The Block, the reason freedom has become such an attractive concept to Americans is because of its history of slavery and other forms of servitude. She notes that the societal understanding of freedom, the belief that no person or group of people should be enslaved, is relatively new and is an idea that is still in development. “A Site of Struggle” helps visitors reconsider these ideas.

The works on display serve to commemorate the many lives lost, providing space and resources to mourn these individuals, and to address both the dark histories of the United States as well as the bold acts of resistance. It is hoped that the exhibit will move visitors beyond rage, grief or empathy to action. that of the block website offers ideas on how to get involved in anti-racist community building work, and its resource area offers a wealth of information on racial history, which is all the more important to learn as history remains under attack in the USA. This is one of the most powerful things art can do: ask us to reconsider history, learn more, and inspire us to get involved in reshaping the world. “I think it’s important not to be afraid of things that make us feel uncomfortable,” Swindell says in the exhibit video. “If we only care about things we like, things we like, things that are pretty, then we lose the power of what art can do. And we lose our chance to learn what happened before and to learn what we need to know so that we can hopefully do better in the future. (Kerry Cardoza)

‘A Site of Struggle’ can be viewed at the Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, through July 10.