Twin Cities Pioneer Press: Art inspired by lynchings in ‘Shadowlands’

Exhibit at Minnesota Museum of American Art


Kathy Berdan


A ghostly tree caught in the glare of headlights at night. A few scattered trees framed by a barbed wire fence in what seems to be a random field. The gnarled branches of a massive oak tree.

Los Angeles artist and academic Ken Gonzales-Day creates these and other images. The story they tell is deeper than the roots of the trees, though.

“Hands Up" features an actor from a 1920s-set video and present-day riot police. (Ken Gonzales-Day)
“Hands Up” features an actor from a 1920s-set video and present-day riot police. (Ken Gonzales-Day)

These trees were used in lynchings.

Gonzales-Day, whose work will be featured in an exhibit titled “Shadowlands” opening Thursday at Minnesota Museum of American Art, is known for his photographs inspired by the history of lynching in California from the 1850s through 1935.

“It’s a very dark topic,” said Christopher Atkins, curator of exhibitions and public programs at the downtown St. Paul museum, which goes by “The M.” “But we don’t want to shy away from topics that are difficult.”

Gonzales-Day has researched and photographed trees that were used in lynchings. He has manipulated photos of lynchings, editing out the victims. The artist’s work shows crowds gathered around the tree … looking at nothing.

The trees are “a strange kind of memorial,” Atkins says. “Living, breathing witnesses.”

The exhibit also will feature an eight-minute video titled “Run Up,” created by Gonzales-Day, in which actors re-enact the hanging of a California man in 1920. It was the last recorded lynching in the state of California, Atkins says.

The artist then took some of the actors in that video, wearing garb from the 1920s, and combined them with images of current race-based incidents. In one, which is featured at the exhibit at the M, a woman in a vintage dress and hat stands with her arms up in front of a police riot squad.

Atkins says the juxtaposition of the old and new images are key to the message of the exhibit. Racial tensions and violence continue, he says, citing the local Philando Castile and Jamar Clark incidents and their aftermath as examples.

The M’s location as a storefront museum in St. Paul puts it in a good position for exhibits such as this one, which looks at racialized violence and how it’s evolved, Atkins says. The museum wants “to connect with people just outside our door,” he adds, and that’s a diverse community.

Gonzales-Day will attend the opening of the exhibit Thursday and speak Friday. The exhibit, which runs through April 16, features the “Run Up” video and 31 images, with 15 of those from his two series on race lynchings. There will be programming related to the exhibit throughout its run, Atkins says.

Source: TwinCities Pioneer Press