50 Years Post-Birmingham
Curated by Dr. Audra Buck-Coleman & Ruth Lozner
With essays by Ken Gonzales-Day, Jeffreen Hayes & Sheri Parks
The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD., Jan. 30 – Apr. 27, 2013
Levine Museum of the New South, Charlotte, NC. Jul. 24 – Dec. 1, 2013
Introduction to Exhibition:
1963 was a year on fire. Birmingham, Alabama was the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement, which was being waged at the expense of lives, homes and livelihoods. The year began with newly inaugurated Alabama Governor George Wallace proclaiming “Segregation today … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.” The year ended with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated after he initiated what would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although there were plenty of battle grounds across the nation during the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham was ground zero. It was here that elementary and high school students were scoured with water from fire hoses and that four girls would die at the hands of Klu Klux Klansmen in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Martin Luther King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and later gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. Fifty years later, racial profiling, stereotyping and identity repression are still smoldering in this “post-racial” era. And yet, we have a collective resistance to discuss the undiscussable. Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham will present provocative works that address the injustices of 1963 and today’s contentious-yet-critical issues of race, representation, and otherness. Through these works, the curators aim to raise awareness and dialogue about the state of race and race relations today.
Catalog essay by Gonzales-Day:
As an artist, author, and educator, my work has been engaged with, and responded too, issues of identity, discrimination and disenfranchisement for the past two decades. During this time, the discussion of the socialin art has shifted in and out of favor with artists, critics, and the public alike.Today, artists regularlydraw ona wide range ofcultural, conceptual,disciplinary,historical,and media specific approachesto create their aesthetic work.I spend a great deal of time researching in my own work, and often present the material in different forms, ranging from museum and gallery exhibitions,to billboards in the street, walking tours, publications, and classroom lectures. I am honored to have my work included in the exhibition not simply because my work has addressedissuesrooted in the Civil Rights Movement, but because the exhibition seeks to connect a broad range of artistic practices,whichall speak tothe ongoing struggle for equality and social justice in our own time.
The exhibition “Network of Mutuality” picks the 1960s as its historical starting point, and perhaps not surprisingly, this was also the period in which questions about photographic “signification” became a part of so many grass roots movements, as Americans were being exposed to image of African Americans being sprayed by fire hoses, attacked by police dogs, and marching in the streets. Events that, as the art historian Maurice Berger has argued, dramatically affected prevailing ideals about race. He writes, “By placing the question of civil rights front and center—and communicating the ugliness of the conflict through pictures that were difficult to deny or refute—such images, disseminated through the media, intentionally or otherwise, forged a path through which the dilemma of racism and segregation could enter the minds and hearts of many Americans, black and white.”
The history of photography is filled with examples in which the “truth claims,” of the photographic image were used to support the work of ethnologists, criminologists, and racial positivists, but as Berger notes, during the Civil Rights Movement, it was used to serve very different ends. In my own work, I found myself drawn to the indexicality of the photographic image, but also sought to resist its objectify claims, or at least to use them differently than they had been used before. A number of my project’s have employed photographic images as mean to address the history of racial violence, lynching in California, the origins of racial typologies, the landscape as site, and even the body itself. Two of these projects focused on the extent to which the lynching of persons of color, and specifically, Latinos, American Indians, and Asians had been overlooked in western history and resulted in two related series: Searching for California Hang Trees and Erased Lynchings, as well as the publication of my first monograph, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, 2006). These projects faced a number of challenges, first in uncovering this lost history, and second in trying to make a project that could speak to the history of racial violence without simply replicating it.
Since 2008, my work has moved in a slightly different direction, suggesting a kind of prequel to the history of lynching in the west. By looking to the depiction of race in Europe, and particularly those representations that were generated out of the beaux-arts system, this project sought to consider the history of racial representation as a way of thinking about the origins of race as both a “scientific” and an aesthetic discourse. For this project I approached race from a number of different perspectives including: its “scientific” origins; its economic realities (e.g. slavery and colonialism); the aesthetic theories of representation found in European art education; and the sculptural and cast form of the body itself. The photographs produced for this on-going series were the subject of my second book, Profiled (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011). Profiled has sought to look at, and look for, depictions of race and racial difference in museum collections throughout the Americas, Asia, and Europe.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like,
mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”
W.E. Du Bois
This series began long before I know anything about lynching in the west, but perhaps tellingly, it grew out of my own interest in trying to understand the Latino experience in relationship to Du Bois’ notion of a “vast veil.” For Du Bois, the veil originated from, and spoke to, the specific experiences of African Americans. At that time, I wrote that the term was a marker of difference, but that it was more than just a cultural or economic signpost because his conception of the veil (and double consciousness) were essential to writers and activists throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Though never strictly defined, Du Bois seemed to have conceived of this veil as a site of social inequity that restricted and informed relations between blacks and whites in the United States. As a Latino in California, I came to believe that something of this “vast veil” resonated with the complexities of my own experience as a Latino of mixed racial and ethnic origin in California.
Writing for the 1997 Documenta catalogue, the art historian Bejamin Buchlow, articulated a startling response to the increased presence of cultural diversity in the visual arts at the time, when he wrote, “What is defined in contemporary American art as multicultural is often a generally acceptable and unthreatening practice, which lacks political critique. In fact it comes down to an extraordinary depoliticization of cultural practices, because the compensation offered by those practices permits the elimination of any real criticism of the economic order.” He argued that these artist’s could not effect social change because they found entitlement though the very systems that supports their work. Secondly, he argued that the international art world, of which he was a part, could not value such work if it lacked “political critique.” But I found this assertion troubling because it pointed to a double standard that separated “multicultural” artists from white artists. Why did Buchlow argue for two systems; one for whites, and one for non-whites? And if “criticism of the economic order” was the only measure of valuation for a multicultural artist, why didn’t it extend to white artists? It was against these experiences, and others, that I began to wonder if I would ever find a place for my own work, and for the work I so desired to see.
Erased Lynching series
It was shortly after the Dysmorphology series that I began the Erased Lynching series (2002-2011). The series really began from my research into images of Latinos taken in California between 1850 and 1900, but quickly evolved into something very different, after two of the images I uncovered, were discovered to be of Latino men destined to be legally hanged. This lead me to look more closely into the question of capital punishment, vigilantism, and cases of lynching in the west, all of which suggested that race was more of a factor than many of us had every realized. My own research documented that, in California, an unexpectedly large percentage of the lynchings were perpetrated against Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. Cases which, when combined with African American lynchings, suggested that race was a contributing factor. My own list included more than 350 cases occurring between 1850 and 1935 and I found that Latinos made up more than forty percent of the total cases, a percentage that was greater than any other racial or ethnic group, at a time when Latinos were estimated to have been between five and ten percent of the state’s total population.
The specific images derived from appropriated lynching postcards and archival materials I had uncovered, but from which, I removed the lynch victim and the ropes as a conceptual gesture that was intended to redirect the viewers attention, not to the lifeless body of lynch victim, but to the social mechanisms of the lynching themselves: the crowd, the spectacle, the photographer, and even the eventual use of flash photography, may have all contributed to our understanding of this dismal history. The perpetrators, if present, remained fully visible in the final images. The removal of the lynched body made the crowds jeering, laughing, and murderous gestures all the more disturbing; their arms tugging the air in a deadly pantomime. This series strove to change the ways we see, and talk about this history, while adding a small but important piece to the existing scholarship on the history of lynching nationwide.
Searching for California Hang Trees
While I was still working on the Erased Lynching series I began to wonder if the same trees were still there, and even what the sites looked like today. I wondered if the lynching sites were marked in any way, or if anyone had recorded this history. As a result, one day I was reading microfilm in the bowels of the state archive when I decided to just get out of the library and see if I could find the site I had just read about. This began a six year journey to look for, and visit, all 350 of the sites I had uncovered. Obviously, many of the exact trees were gone, converted into parking lots and shopping malls, but what remained Became a part of the Searching for California’s Hang Trees (2002-2007) series.
It was from my research on the history of lynching in California that I began to wonder just why these early settlers had come to have so much distain for the old Californio families and Mexicans they encountered. Certainly, some of these men may have been guilty or may have been criminals, but there were other criminals in the west. So the Profiled series (2008-ongoing) really began from the challenge of trying to represent the material history of race as a discourse in and of itself. In this project, the once-living subjects of European sculptures and portrait busts had already been replaced by their sculptural doubles. But their sculptural presence pointed to their physical absence, and suggested a new critical space from which to consider not only the persons they portrayed, but sometimes also revealed something of the curious histories which brought them into being in the first place. Indeed one of the first portrait busts I photographed was of an African man, who was sculpted by the famous (possibly) English sculptor, Francis Harwood in 1758. The presence of a scar in the sculptures, suggests this was not a racial type, but a real person, and yet, his identity remains unknown to this day.
With the Profiled series, my work has sought to extend the discussion of sculpture, race, and aesthetics too include the troubled persistence of racial profiling in contemporary society and may help to highlight some of inconsistencies still lingering in the discourse on race and racial formation. Profiled is about how these sculptural depictions, often render with now-outdated aesthetic and ideological models, have become all but illegible to contemporary viewers. Cast, carved, burned, and broken, they are shadows of people that once lived in this world, or in the imaginations of their makers, and span everything from memorials to emperors to Orientalist follies, but in the end, they also track our ever-changing understanding of race, beauty, and the artistic process itself. Its hard to know where future projects may lead, or how this work my add to the larger understanding of difference in our time, but I think the underlying premise of the exhibition suggests a promising start for our own time.
Gonzales-Day is the Chair of the Art Department and Professor at Scripps College, where he has taught since 1995. Gonzales-Day has had numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally, from Los Angeles to New York, and Paris to Singapore. His work can be found in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney), L’Ecole des beaux-arts (Paris), Eileen Harris Norton Foundation (Santa Monica), Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum National d’Histoire naturelle (Paris), Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution – American Art Museum, among others.
 W.E. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks, Boston: Bedford Books, 1997, p.38.
 Benjamin Buchloh, “The Political Potential of Art,” by Benjamin Buchloh, Catherine David, Jean-François Chevrier in Documenta X- the book: politics poetics. Idea and Conception: Catherine David, Jean-François Chevrier. Kassel: Published and Edited: Cantz Verlag, Documenta and Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs GmbH, 1997. p.635.