Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of three posts by the author, the third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.
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“Given that the afterlife of slavery means that black death is the normative condition of civil society, what is the character of the aesthetic in the context of terror?”
– Saidiya Hartman, On Working with Archives
Representations of anti-Black violence are powerful discursive tools. As products of racist desire, early 20th-century souvenir photographic postcards of such violence titillated many White American consumers. This gaze extracted, assaulted, consumed, and obliterated Black flesh. Anti-lynching activists and artists employed this visual imagery to galvanize political support for US federal legislation against the widespread terrorism. Later Civil Rights leaders mobilized thousands by circulating photographic and video imagery of racialized attacks. Their evidentiary approach strengthened demands for structural change and generated communal mourning among Black publics, who knew that their lives, their loved ones’ lives, could be or already had been taken.
Many of us recall the images of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago, who was lynched by two White men during his summer trip to Mississippi in 1955. His mother Mamie Till-Mobley felt that “everybody needed to know what had happened.” She opted for an open casket funeral service in her Chicago South Side neighborhood. Tens of thousands of Black people waited in long lines to view the child’s body. Even more participated in the communal mourning through seeing the photographs she allowed Jet Magazine, a Black periodical, to publish of her son’s mutilated body. Her use of visual evidence had a strong effect. Having witnessed the extreme brutality enacted on Emmett Till and realizing their own precarity, many more Black people joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
Today, cell phone cameras and surveillance devices regularly capture anti-Black state-sanctioned violence. Despite these images commonly trafficking on social media and the relentlessness of anti-Blackness, some ardently claim that the act of seeing “raises awareness” and provokes empathy. Tending to privilege White viewers, these perspectives usually do not extend actual care to victims. However, certain nuanced portrayals of this violence do attend to victims, to Black life. Mamie Till-Mobley’s decisive actions offer significant lessons for us. Context is important. Till-Mobley communicated the devastation of her child’s murder to Black communities, people who were subject to the same virulent forces. Understanding power relationships, kinship, and vulnerabilities is imperative in the work of beholding one another and curating with care. As anti-Blackness continues, representational strategies remain enmeshed in a fraught nexus of resistance, remembrance, and abuse.
Here are some questions I propose curators of all identities and conditions consider before exhibiting images of anti-Black violence and related images.
Questions for Foregrounding Care in Curatorial Practice
- Who is centered in the artwork?
- Who is most harmed by the violence?
- Does the circulation of the image/art/object/experience harm those most harmed?
- How does the art disrupt domination?
- Who is valued? Who is not?
- What scholarship engages the artwork?
- What forms of care may address needs of victims, loved ones of victims, and community members who are prime targets of this violence?
- Do you have established relationships with the subject(s) and communities related to the subjects? If so, describe. If not, what does that lack of relationship signify?
- If empathy is stated or implied as a desired goal, who doesn’t already know that racialized violence is bad/evil/horrific?
- Why does that group need to project themselves into images of Black people’s destroyed bodies to care?
- Who is valued in this paradigm? Who is not? Why?
- What is your ethos? How do you center that in your daily work?
- How does the art/object/experience relate to your ethos? To the artist’s ethos? To the institution’s mission AND actual practices?
- Are you disrupting anti-Blackness or perpetuating it?
- Are you the right person to be producing this work?
- What communities are you accountable/responsible to?
- Are you committed to this topic? How so?
- Are you lying to yourself, to others? Why?
Institution/Location of Display/Experience
- Does the institution/location uphold anti-Blackness? How so?
- How does the art/object/experience relate to the institution’s/location’s mission AND actual working practices?
- What is the relationship between the communities featured in the artwork and the institution?
- What value does the institution/venue gain from exhibiting imagery of Black people’s destroyed bodies?
- Does the institution exhibit images of mutilated, murdered white or other racialized bodies? If so, how, why?
- Does the staff have expertise with this topic? How so?
- Is the institution committed to this issue? How so?
- Does the institutional rhetoric purport to promote racial justice? If so, does the institution regularly redistribute funds and resources to local Black communities and to other nonwhite communities? Describe.
Read and discuss key related texts and your responses.