EVANSTON, Ill. — Racial violence has unfortunately been deeply rooted in American history. And now, a new art exhibit is exploring race relations in the U.S. from reconstruction to the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. It shines a light on racism in a visual history lesson spanning more than a century.
From paintings and photographs to sculptures and prints, the imagery and history of violence against Black people in America is on full display.
“There's been so much emphasis in the last several years on issues of racial violence that we're grappling with today. We think it's important for all of us to have a deep understanding of the roots of that violence,” said Janet Dees, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.
“A Site of Struggle: American Art Against Anti-Black Violence,” is a collection of 60 works. The exhibit takes visitors through American history starting in the 1890s through the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This is a photograph by the African American photographer Darryl Cowherd titled ‘Stop White Police from Killing Us’ from 1966,” said Dees, showing a photograph from St. Louis that parallels messaging from Ferguson in 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.
The collection is an unflinching look at how art has been used to protest, process, mourn, and memorialize anti-Black violence.
And while the majority of the artists are African American, there are artists included from a variety of racial backgrounds.
“I thought it was important to do that to be able to trace not only these legacies of violence but also legacies of resistance and resilience, as well as multiracial solidarity,” said Dees.
The exhibit aims to put contemporary issues around racial violence into a longer historical context.
“They really call on us to have a response to have emotions, but also, I think to be thoughtful and ultimately to engage politically and intellectually with what this means for us and for our nation,” said Leslie Harris, professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University.
In one work from 1943 —a watercolor graphite illustration— a police officer can be seen with his baton raised as a Black man is held down and bloodied. It’s called “Untitled Police Beating.”
“It really wasn't a head reaction at first it was a heart reaction to think that we’re still grappling with these similar issues today,” said Dees. “It seems as if this was a drawing that could have been made yesterday or even a few years ago.”
The collection contains three distinct sections: focusing on the psychological, emotional, and finally, the physical forms of anti-Black violence. All of it aims to intertwine history with visual impact.
“The Middle Passage image of the cutaway slave ship that depicted for broad audiences how enslaved Africans were transported from the coast of Africa to the Americas," said Harris. “That image is still with us today because it was so striking.”
The final section in the exhibit is a gallery within a gallery, more graphic in its depictions. It’s entitled “A Red Record," taking its title from an 1895 anti-lynching pamphlet written by the activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.
“Rather than it circulating like souvenirs, she really used it as a way to show to the larger public the atrocities that were taking place as a way to galvanize support to help eradicate this violence,” said Dees.
Harris says ultimately the collection is meant to awaken reflection.
“Out of the most horrific things, there's great beauty,” said Harris. “Turning something sorrowful and tragic into something that's constructive is also a lesson I think of this exhibition as difficult as it is.”
It’s a difficult confrontation of a history of violence through art with hopes of promoting healing and growth.