STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
The country has reacted in various ways to recent events involving black men and the police. The same is true for students on the Ursinus College campus. Late last year, they had a die-in (a form of protest where participants simulate being dead), then a community meeting was held to encourage discussion, according to curator Ginny Kollak. That inspired her to create the exhibit “Under Color of Law: Civil Rights Protest Movements, Past and Present,” which she hopes will continue the dialogue.
“Many students at Ursinus were upset and confused when a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict any of the police officers involved in the death of Eric Garner last December. My thoughts automatically went to a handful of artists making extremely powerful and affecting work about the intersections between race and privilege across time,” Kollak said.
The exhibit responds to recent events (including the cases of Garner and of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.), but also looks at the historical context of current and past events. The title refers to the legal term for the appearance of authority that covers the actions of police officers, judges, or other government officials, whether those actions are lawful or not, according to organizers.
The works presented reference the early activism of W.E.B. Du Bois, the final speeches of Malcolm X, the lingering legacy of Jim Crow, the Voting Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, the bureaucracy of current “stop-and-frisk” policies, and how individuals respond to their perceptions of injustice.
The exhibit features 6 pieces by five artists — Terry Adkins, Nsenga Knight, Hank Willis Thomas, Nari Ward, and Carrie Mae Weems. There’s “a lot of breathing room for each artist,” Kollak said.
Thomas, a New York multi-media artist, has two pieces in the show. “Amelia Falling” features a photo taken by Spider Martin on a mirror. The picture depicts Amelia Boynton, a Civil Rights advocate, after being tear-gassed while marching in Selma, Kollak said. Thomas thought the image was weighty and putting it on the mirror adds more.
“I think it’s important to figure out to what degree we can put ourselves in historic moments,” he said. “I like the idea of implicating ourselves in the things that we’re looking at, not just gawking or gazing. Even for a brief second, we’re experiencing something of it.”
That image affected Kollak.
“The idea that we’re marching and we’re still being tear-gassed over and over again struck me,” she said.
Thomas’ other work is “Intentionally Left Blanc,” which is white on white and looks like a negative of a photo. When light from a camera flash or flashlight hits it, though, viewers can see the details of the image. The picture, from a 1969 edition of Ebony magazine talking about redistricting, shows the blanked out faces of people at a rally.
“It calls into question what happened to them and who are they?” he said. And it focuses on the issue of gerrymandering, which Thomas said is used “to a large degree to disenfranchise and minimize the potency of the black vote or the vote of people of color.”
Is the past repeating itself and in what ways? That’s one of the things Kollak hopes viewers will consider.
“In researching for this show, I was surprised at how many things I had forgotten that I had learned in school, and aspects I didn’t know,” she said. “Looking back at the longer history of the civil rights movement, the same things have been happening over and over.”
Thomas considers himself an archeologist of visual culture who likes to reuse older images in fine art. He focuses on many topics, but issues surrounding race and culture are ongoing and important to talk about now.
“In this moment where there has been public action, more so than we’ve seen in the past 30 years, it’s important to think the present moment is part of a continuum,” he said.
IF YOU GO
What: “Under Color of Law: Civil Rights Protest Movements, Past and Present”
When: Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; noon to 4 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Where: The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, 601 E. Main St., Collegeville.
Info.: Call (610) 409-3500 or visit www.ursinus.edu
To see more of Thomas’ work, visit http://www.hankwillisthomas.com/