Erased Lynchings

Erased Lynching Series


Begun in 2002, the Erased Lynching Series is, for many, my most widely recognized work and has helped to increase awareness of the history of lynching in California and nationwide. My research expanded the number of known cases of lynching in California from 50 to over 350, and the work was unique in that it addresses the broad history of lynching in the United States, which, with the help of many scholars, now includes the lynching of over 4400 African Americans (EJI), Asians, Latinxs (500+), Native Americans, and whites, in the American West and nationwide.

The series is notable for its conceptual use of digital technology (Photoshop) and its engagement with historic/archival images from my collection as well as from regional archives. I erased or removed the body of the lynching victim and the rope from historic lynching postcards and archival images of lynchings and then reproduced the image as a kind of facsimile or stand in for the original.  By erasing the victim’s bodies, I sought to create a visual experience that would force the viewer to see the "absence" as a presence and direct the viewer's focus on the crowd and in doing so, to foreground the underlying racism and bias that was foundational to many of these acts of collective violence, which have increasingly come to be seen as central to understanding race and difference in America and to point to what Claudia Rankine has termed as the racial imaginary. 

The series continues to raise awareness of this history, and is widely taught in art historical curriculums as a way inviting viewers to see whiteness -- by drawing attention, not only to what is missing, absent, erased but also to what is present, or becomes visible. 

Rather than re-victimizing those murdered in such collective and often premeditated acts of killing, the work allows the viewer to literally focus on the crowd  - complete with their jeering and smiling faces, and the was the result of an artistic practice that seeks to promote a critical exploration of American history.

No artwork can address the horror of Lynching in the United States, nor the lasting trauma of lynching on African-Americans and their families, but this project was created in solidarity with a range of new scholarship on lynching that began to emerge in the early 2000s.  In addition to this series, the larger project included my first monograph, “Lynching in the West: 1850-1935” (A John Hope Franklin Center Book) was published by Duke University Press in 2006 and expanded the number of known cases in the state of California from 50 to over 350 and in doing so drew attention to a region of the nation that was not historically associated with lynching and also remains one of the the few texts to acknowledge the lynching of Latinxs in the United States.

In fact, the series began as a response to anti-immigration/ anti-Latinx rhetoric that led to an increase in violence and vigilante activity against Latinxs and immigrants arriving along the U.S./Mexico border.

Since then, the series has continued to grow to address cases from many regions of the nation, and even Mexico in an attempt to show the impact of lynching on many BIPOC communities and has expanded the national understanding of racialized violence in America. 

Since 2006, the series has continued to grow to address, and now includes over sixty images from across the U.S., Mexico, and beyond. 


Artist Questionaire from Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea

Please tell us about the Erased Lynching Series.

The works included in the exhibition are from the Erased Lynching Series which includes over sixty images to date. The exhibition includes the first 15 images from the series and date from 2004 to 2006. The framed images are hung in a grid but have also been displayed in other configurations.

Would you like to call attention to a particular material or process that is significant in this artwork?

The images are all photographic but were not made in an analog or “wet” darkroom. Some are photographs of photographs. Some are photographs of postcards. All reference the history of the photographic postcard and the terrorizing legacy of lynching postcards in particular. The images have all been digitally processed in Adobe Photoshop or other image editing software and may represent a combination of photographic techniques within a digital workflow. Some of the images have been altered and the lynching victims and ropes have been removed to conceptually redirect the viewer’s attention away from the terrorizing spectacle of lynching and death and to make tangible the complex histories of settler colonialism, systemic racism, the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws, antisemitism, and whiteness that shaped the history of lynching in the United States.

I used Photoshop to remove the victim and the rope from each image (when present) and to alter the original historic photographic postcards or archival images of lynching and other forms of extrajudicial killings from across the West, and beyond. The final digital images were then printed and mounted on heavy card stock to replicate the materiality of historic postcards and view cards to foreground the commodification of their distribution, often via the U.S. Postal system, as is suggested by two of the images that depict the card back or area reserved for “correspondence” on the postcard, and reveal stains, handwritten comments, and of course, the space reserved for postage.

What motivated your creation of the work?

The work began as a response to real-life vigilantes who began to garner media attention along the U.S./Mexico border back in the early 2000s when groups like the Minute Man Project sought to enflame anti-immigration political rhetoric and imagery in the media, which ultimately fueled violence against Hispanics, Latina/o/x/s, and immigrant communities from across the Americas.

My research also corresponded with the publication of Without Sanctuary in 2000 which included a series of essays addressing history of racial terror represented by the lynching of African Americans in the United States and nearly 100 four-color plates.

Between 4,000 and 6,000 African Americans were lynched nationwide and I would also like to acknowledge that no artwork can address the ongoing pain and trauma of lynching to African Americans and their families.

My project was produced in solidarity with a wave of new scholarship on lynching that took place at that time.

How does your experience of place—geography, culture, history, etc.—inform your artmaking?

My artmaking has been deeply influenced by my experience of place, geography, culture, and history. As a Mexican American and a California native of mixed racial and cultural ancestry, I wanted to make a project about whiteness and racial injustice, but I didn’t want to revictimize those who had been killed -- Including white lynching victims.

The project had to begin by creating a record of the history of lynching in California. From 2000 to 2006 I documented over 350 cases of lynching in the state (nearly seven times the number of cases previously acknowledged by organizations like the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute). I identified victims of every race, and from nearly every continent. There were lynching victims from Asia -- the majority coming from China. There were Latinx victims from the early Californios to those from Mexico, Central, and South America. There were victims from the eastern United States, from Europe, and even Australia.

After much research, and in contradiction to nearly all previous literature on the subject, my work documented that the majority of those lynched in California were from  communities of color.

The project, including the publication of Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke, 2006) and other written and visual art projects have helped to raise awareness of the lynching of Asians, Blacks, Chinese, Latinxs, Native Americans, and others in California. The research also identified, for the first time, that the Latinx community (of all races) made up over 44% of all cases. Since then, over 500 cases of lynching of persons from Latinx communities have been identified by scholars nationwide.

Many Wests proposes that the American West is a complex cultural construct built by the popular imagination as well as politics and that artists reveal and assert its multifaceted and always-evolving nature. How does your work express ideas about or relate to the West? (What does your West look like?)

By erasing the victim’s body I hoped to create a visual experience that would force the viewer to focus on the crowd, and in doing so, to address the underlying racism and bias that was so foundational to many of these acts of collective violence, which have increasingly come to be seen as central to understanding the traumatic legacies of race and difference in America.

The work was also meant to help viewers to engage a critical approach to whiteness, by drawing their attention to what is missing, absent, and erased.  Rather than re-victimizing those murdered in such collective and often premeditated acts of killing, the work in this series allows the viewer to focus on the crowd - complete with their jeering and smiling faces -- and to invite a rethinking of American history and Western history in particular. I also wanted to encourage viewers to see the similarities between lynch mobs across our Nation, and across time, and to invite viewers to consider the ongoing erasure of Latinx communities from our national narrative, even in states like California, where our numbers continue to grow, and yet continue to be under-represented from City hall to the Capitol Hill.

To erase something can be seen a form of displacement or destruction, but in my work, I have tried to turn erasure into a site of production and absence into a constructive presence that critically engages viewers and creates new meanings.

When I began this project, I was trying to understand why Latinx bodies had been erased, not only from the history of lynching in California but from our national memory as a whole.

The act of erasure was seen a radical gesture when the works were first presented and offer doubt as an artistic signifier that invites a kind of forensic gaze into the scene itself.  What do you see? What is missing? How might this absence introduce and encourage viewers to question what they see, or have been taught not just about photographic truth, but about the idea of the West itself.

The Erased Lynching series takes erasure as its medium and social justice as its subject to allow viewers to see this history of traumatic and often racialized violence in very new ways.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’ wrote, “Affect was what I didn't want to reduce…; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.”

For me, the erasure of Latinx bodies from the history of racialized violence in America, was a wound. In an era when Latinx bodies continue to be vilified, it is a wound that will not heal. Absence and erasure are two affective strategies that I have employed in my work to invite viewers to speculate on, and consider not only the legacies of settler colonialism, racialized violence, and social justice, but also on who is and who is not included in the conversation, and ultimately on how we see the West.


Additional Press

To read Gustavo Arellano's essay in the Los Angeles Times

To read Maurice Berger in the New York Times  Lens Blog.

To watch the PBS segment on the work from Lost LA click here.

Additional articles and materials can be found on the Biblio page.


Exhibition History

The “Erased Lynching” series was first exhibited in Los Angeles in 2005,  then at New York's Cue Art Foundation and the Pomona College Museum of Art in 2006, and has continued to grow since then. In 2007, the series was exhibited in "Exile of the Imaginary" at the Generali Foundation in Vienna, Austria and at The Austrian Cultural Institute in NYC. Selections from series and larger project were also included in LACMA's "Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement" which traveled to the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City, as well as to museum venues across the U.S. and Mexico from 2008 to 2010. Selections of the work were also exhibited in Dublin at the Temple Bar Gallery in 2008 and at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in 2009, Additional exhibitions include: The Museum of Photography in San Diego in 2010, Gallery TWP in Toronto in 2011,  the Vincent Price Museum in 2012,  and two traveling exhibitions, "Our America" organized by the American Art Museum of the Smithsonian, and "Phantom Bodies," organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in Nashville in 2015. The Minnesota Museum of Art in St. Paul exhibited this and other works in "Shadowlands," a traveling solo exhibition in 2017-2018. Selections from the series have since been exhibited at Leslie-Lohman Gay and Lesbian Museum n NYC, 2016. Selections from several series of the work were also included a major survey exhibition of my work entitled, "Unseen: Our past in a new light: Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar," at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution from 2018-19.  Portions of the series were exhibited by Luis De Jesus Los Angeles at Untitled Art, Miami and San Francisco in 2019, and at Broad Art Museum at MSU in 2020, among others.

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