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 John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778) to 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.
I was greatly limited in my research during the pandemic but located an archives collection description which read, “also included are five photographs of art works by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, William Mosby, and Jose Clemente Orozco in which lynchings are depicted.” Based on this information, Marisa Bourgoin, Head of Reference Services was able to photograph four of the photographs in question and sent them to me as a PDF on November 20, 2020. In addition, the Jacques Seligmann and Co., Records, Box 358, Folder 6, includes many documents relating to the exhibition. These files are available online: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/jacques-seligmann–co-records-9936/subseries-8-1/box-358-folder-6.
I have reconstructed the complete list of the images that were shown using these and other sources. A number of these images served as the sources for my drawings.
The artwork is a creative and critical intervention into the Archives that is directly informed by my ongoing Erased Lynching series, in which I rephotograph photographic documentation of historic lynching images and postcards, and digitally remove the lynching victims and the rope to allow the viewer to focus on the social conditions which made such acts possible in the first place and to encourage a critical engagement with race and whiteness. Thus, if the earlier versions where photographs of photographs, then the proposed project consist of orginal drawings based on photographic images of drawings and prints included in the orginal exhibition.
The remaining trees and plant life became a personal and artistic exploration of the ways that these artists rendered nature, trauma, and whiteness, which I suggest must be seen as an critical response to white racial formation by these earlier artists in their depiction of the lynchings themselves.
To redraw what has previously been drawn must be seen as a critical intervention by its very nature. Particularly since so many of the works were clearly informed by the history of lynching postcards so prevalent in that period.
As an artist, I have been redrawing the works of other artists. While refusing to re-draw, or re-represent the lynching victims, I openly explore the physical process of drawing images that must have been traumatic for each of the artists who produced them, particularly given the controversy surrounding the exhibition and the historical moment in which they were living, and reflects directly on our own time when, historical erasures and fake news threatens our very democracy.
To make art is normally seen as an act of creation to be celebrated, but what is the lasting impact of a work, not only on viewers and historians, but to the artists themselves? And what role can the archive play in helping artists to learn from other artists, to share their struggles, and perhaps, to share their burden when we must?