Archives of American Art Journal: In Another’s Hand

Working title: In Another’s Hand

Description: The series began as part of a print project created for the Smithsonian’s Journal of the Archives of American Art during the pandemic. That project focuses on a set of drawings derived from a number of that were included in the first exhibition on lynching in the United States entitled, “An Art Commentary on Lynching” which was held from Feb. 15 – Mar. 2, 1935, at New York’s Arthur U. Newton Galleries and was organized by Walter White, then, secretary of the NAACP. White had revived the NAACP’s legislative campaign against lynching and was seeking support for the Costigan-Wagner bill, which was introduced into Congress in 1934  but which never passed (see Helen Langa, “Two Anti-Lynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial perspectives, Gendered Constraints,” Journal of Contemporary African Art, No. 20, Fall 2006, 96).

According to newspaper accounts held in the Archives of American Art, there was an earlier venue for the exhibition at the Jacques Seligmann Galleries, 3 E. 51st St. but it was cancelled abruptly. The Eagle reported that Jacques Seligmann decided not to hold the exhibition because of protests “against racial manifestations” (Eagle, 02/12/35). Still another article mentioned that “political, economic and social pressure had been brought to bear” in causing the cancellation (New York World-Telegram, 02/13/1935). Given my own work on the history of lynching in the United States I was curious to learn more about how these artist’s work was received at the time.

In creating a series of drawings inspired by these historic works I made the decision to remove all of the lynching victims and the ropes from the images, as I had done in a previous body of work but in this case, I also wanted to remove any depictions of the individuals in the lynch mob as a way of drawing our attention to the natural and built world as rendered through the original artist’s hand.

In removing the figures, I wanted to invite the viewer to consider both the history of lynching at the national level, which included the lynching of what we now know to be hundreds of Latinx victims, as well as to consider the historic role of the artist in raising awareness of a wide range of social, political, and historical issues in our nation, from Reginald Marsh’s This is her first lynching (1934) drawing, which was in the original exhibition, to the use of art in contemporary social justice movements to my own work in the Erased Lynching Series.


Excerpt from Introduction by Shawn Michelle Smith:

In his work on representations of lynching in the United States, artist Ken Gonzales-Day consistently redirects the focus away from the bodies of victims. In his well-known series, Erased Lynching, he pursues a process of extraction and deletion, rephotographing and then digitally removing the lynched bodies in archival photographs to encourage viewers to focus on the white crowds that perpetrated and participated in racialized spectacles of torture and murder. In another project, Searching for California’s Hang Trees, Gonzales-Day researched the sites of over 300 lynchings in California and photographed the ancient trees that might have been harnessed to these crimes. In that series, the landscape itself becomes the focus, a haunted terrain marked by the history of racial violence.

These two tactics come together in Gonzales-Day’s present artwork, In Another’s Hand, for which he has redrawn the flora and fauna in other artists’ renditions of lynching. To produce the work, he consulted the records at the Archives of the antilynching exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching, held at the Arthur U. Newton Galleries on 57th Street in New York City from February 15 to March 2, 1935 (after the Jacques Seligmann Galleries retracted their offer to host the show). Conceived by Walter White, director of the NAACP, the show presented the work of thirty-nine artists and was intended to provide publicity and draw support for antilynching legislation being introduced in Congress.

Working from reproductions of artworks by Hale Woodruff, John Steuart Curry, George Bellows, José Clemente Orozco, Edmund Duffy, Reginald Marsh, Prentiss Taylor, Harry Stenberg, and William Jennings, Gonzales-Day produced ten ink and pencil drawings on 15 x 11-inch archival paper. The drawings depict only flora and fauna, omitting all humans, including victims, perpetrators, and participant-viewers. The artist’s process is not simply extractive, however, because everything in the drawings has been added by hand, put on paper with intent. The process also required Gonzales-Day to imagine and fill in elements of what had been backgrounds, originally obscured by bodies, as he transformed them into his central subjects.

In some of these drawings, such as Untitled (After George Bellows, The Law Is Too Slow, 1923) and Untitled (After José Clemente Orozco, Negroes, 1933), the scenes, devoid of people, remain ominous. Fires encroach on trees and dogs cower before the flames. One senses that something is seriously wrong in these places.

In Untitled (After John Steuart Curry, The Fugitive, 1935), the scene is much more peaceful. A large tree is depicted in the foreground, presented from a point of view raised well above the ground to the level of its middle limbs. Through its branches one can see in the distance a dog sniffing the ground, and in the bottom right foreground, two butterflies float by.  An intensified energy is only visible, perhaps, in the twisting and turning leaves of the tree.

As these works suggest, trees were harnessed to the terror of white supremacy, even as they may have provided a sheltering sanctuary for its victims. Gonzales-Day asks viewers to focus on the setting and scenes of racial violence, drawing attention to what one might consider another set of witnesses forced to participate in these murders.

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. An award-winning author, she has published seven books, including, most recently, Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography (2020).

See images here

The electronic edition of the Archives of American Art Journal’s Spring 2023 issue is now live: