As the country tries to deal with one troubling aspect of US history – the mass shootings – we are reminded that there were others intertwined in the nation’s making, including anti-violence. -black.
Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art has been showcasing theme-centric American art since January with the exhibition “A Site of Struggle: American Art Against Anti-Black Violence.” The exhibition explores how artists have engaged with this violence and the representational challenges that come with it – from the explicit to the abstract on topics ranging from slavery, lynching, police brutality and the suppression of civil rights.
According to curator Janet Dees, the exhibition examines art between the rise of militant anti-lynching movements in the post-Reconstruction era and the founding of Black Lives Matter to show a historical trajectory. And it’s the last weekend that it will be open to the public before heading to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama.
“It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s really to give an idea of what’s out there,” Dees said. “I think that’s at the heart of one of the questions that the exhibition explores – looking at the different strategies that artists have used to tackle this problem and finding a balance between the need to bear witness and the need to care.”
A long research and development process for “A Site of Struggle” involved visiting different archives, talking to colleagues, advisers and artists to determine which objects would go in the exhibition. The works are carefully placed to facilitate engagement on the visitor’s terms.
“It was really important to offer a variety of resources for visitors to support their experience with the exhibit,” Dees said. The site offers spaces for conversation about the ideas raised in the exhibition and the opportunity to delve into particular areas. There’s a resource room that contains a library of books that delve into figures like Ida B. Wells and topics like racial trauma healing. “There is a reflective space where people can have the opportunity to sit down and process what they have seen before returning to the outside world,” Dees added. “And there is guided meditation that is accessible to support that.”
Questions raised by the exhibition: How can art history help inform our understanding of racial violence and how art has been used to protest, address, mourn and commemorate anti-black violence? If you miss the exhibition this weekend, a companion publication that shares the same name with the exhibition is widely distributed.
“There is the possibility for her to live on as a resource beyond the closing of the exhibition,” Dees said.
The art of protest is a subject that “artivist” De Nichols knows well. The YouTube designer wrote the book “Art of Protest” in 2021 to speak to young people who see all the social ills at play and who may be looking for a way to contribute or express how they feel about them. Nichols was part of the creative team that created the “Mirror Casket” after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The coffin is now part of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.
“Anyone, regardless of age, who is new to activism or protests, might find this book valuable or, in some way, an introduction,” she said. Having participated and collaborated with various social movements and protests across the country, Nichols has brought his expertise to the page for others. “I really wanted to write a book that I would have liked to have had as a young person. Very often young people can be put off joining social movements because their parents may be afraid that they will be hurt or think that they’re too young to understand what’s going on in the world. But young people are more aware and aware of what’s going on than we give them credit for.”
Nichols said her activism began when she was very young in response to bullying at school.
“My intention with the book was not necessarily to tell people what to think, but to encourage them to think critically and create…look around and find creative ways to express what they believe. “, said Nichols. “Instead of trying to tell their child what to believe or what to think about it, instill in them the self-reflection of ‘how you feel about someone else who is hurt, or someone who tells a person they can’t choose what to do with their body? What would you think of these types of challenges if they came your way? I think if parents and adults ask children more questions, they will realize that many young people are intuitive, almost innate in thinking about issues in terms of harmony, fairness and justice.
“A Site of Struggle: American Art Against Anti-Black Violence” runs through July 10; www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu. The book is by Princeton University Press. “art of protest: Creating, Discovering and Activating Art for Your Revolution” is Big Picture Press.
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