Exhibition rounds up more than a century of art showing and condemning racial violence
‘A Site of Struggle’ at NU’s Block Museum includes warnings that some of the more graphic pieces may cause discomfort.
It is well known if not always properly acknowledged that, from George Floyd to Emmett Till to thousands of now-forgotten victims before them, Blacks have suffered an ugly and tumultuous history of violence in this country.
Less recognized, though, is that artists for decades have created work in a range of mediums that documents, probes, mourns, protests and condemns these malevolent, racist and too often deadly acts.
A touring exhibition opening Wednesday at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art assembles more than a century’s worth of those creations from the time of the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1890s to the 2013 founding of the Black Lives Matter movement.
‘A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence’
When: Jan. 26-July 10
Where: Northwestern University, Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston
Titled “A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence,” it contains 56 works by such artists as Elizabeth Catlett, Kerry James Marshall, Isamu Noguchi, Howardena Pindell, Alison Saar and Carrie Mae Weems.
“As we are all too painfully aware,” said Janet Dees, the show’s curator, “we are still grappling with racial violence as an issue in our country. And I think an exhibition like this gives us an opportunity to put our contemporary moment into a larger historical context and to pause and be with ideas that we wouldn’t be able to be with otherwise.”
Block Director Lisa Corrin said that the compact, academic museum is better positioned than what she called “large, mainstream art museums” to confront such difficult subject matter, in part because it can put the “currency of its ideas” ahead of worries about admission revenue.
“We have a history,” she said, “certainly for the last 10 years since I arrived, of taking on exhibitions that deal with subjects that have been overlooked, understudied or even suppressed. Investing in scholarship that can rewrite narratives of history is one of the things that make us distinctive.”
Although planning for the show began in earnest about five years ago, its origins go back to discoveries of anti-violence artworks that Dees made more than 20 years ago, including Pat Ward Williams’ “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” (1986). The mixed-media piece incorporates a lynching photo from Life magazine surrounded by scrawled questions such as: “Can you be Black and look at this?”
“Janet has such an extensive history and relationship with putting on exhibitions that deal with urgent political and social questions but through artistic avenues that are quite unconventional,” said Sampada Aranke, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a contributor to the show’s catalog.
Although Dees, Block’s curator of modern and contemporary art, was already aware of many of the works she wanted to include in “A Site of Struggle,” she often had to undertake detective work to ascertain their locations, especially older ones from the 1920s and ’30s. Loan requests went out at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, and private collectors and institutions from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center in New Orleans were willing to share holdings.
The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections beginning with “A Red Record,” which contains some of the exhibition’s most graphic imagery. It takes the title of an 1895 pamphlet printed in Chicago by journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells detailing the numbers of lynchings from the previous three years.
Another key work in this section is Norman Lewis’ “Untitled (Police Beating)” (1943), a watercolor, ink and graphite drawing depicting police violence against an African American long before Rodney King or George Floyd.
The rest of the exhibition is split between “Abstraction and Affect,” examining how some artists avoided literal representations of violence, and “Written on the Body,” which explores more indirect forms of violence.
A challenge for the show’s organizers was balancing the potential pain to particularly Black visitors that some of these images could cause with the urgent desire to expose viewers to these artworks and the incidents and social aftermath they depict.
To help offset some of that discomfort, Dees said, organizers have built what she called a “structure of care and support” for visitors. It includes limiting the number of works in the show, establishing areas of respite and reflection and giving viewers advance warning and a choice about confronting more explicit selections.
As part of the planning for this sensitive show, Dees and her colleagues consulted with both a national group of art scholars and museum professionals — including Aranke — and an ongoing community advisory group of leaders in social justice, education and the arts.
At the same time, the museum has worked with academic and non-academic programs across the Northwestern campus, including the athletic department, to find ways that aspects of “A Site of Struggle” can be incorporated into coursework and conversations around racial equity.
After it closes July 10 at the Block, the exhibition will travel to the Montgomery (Alabama) Museum of Art, which is situated in a historic Southern city that was a focal point of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.