As a black man played dead at the base of one of Philadelphia’s most iconic sculptures, tourists continued snapping photographs in front of the landmark, the intrusive body lying at their feet recalling that of the slain Michael Brown.
Last Saturday, 27-year-old artist and MFA student in acting Keith Wallace held this silent protest in the City of Brotherly Love in response to the ongoing tensions in Ferguson that have bred conversations regarding the perception of African Americans, Philadelphia Magazine reported. Covered in fake blood, Wallace lay facedown and motionless for one hour by one of Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculptures in Philadelphia’s Love Park, a heavily trafficked site and a magnet for the city’s tourists. Two of his friends took turns standing beside him, holding up a sign that read “Call Us By Our Names,” a slogan Wallace created to change how the media portrays black murder victims in America. Wallace also handed out his artist statement to passersby, which on one side lists the public’s rights and responsibilities.
“The media is heavily slanted and biased in cases where the victim is of color, passing them off as thugs, or gang- and drug-related,” Wallace told Hyperallergic in an email. “When it’s someone who is white, they’re ‘troubled’ or ‘disturbed.’ I was tired. No, we’re NOT all thugs, we’re not all gangsters, we’re not this or that. We’re unarmed citizens, so call us who we are … When you give a face and a name to a victim, the public becomes socially responsible in a different way.”
The public that day, however, largely ignored Wallace’s still body, a reaction he feels captures the country’s current racial climate. “2day in Philly a black body lie lifeless on the st.,” he tweeted, captioning a photo showing a large group posing by Indiana’s sculpture despite the macabre presence. “Life went on.”
Aside from the camera-ready folks, some who chose to acknowledge the protest mocked it.
“I’m so tired of black people forcing their politics down our throats,” one elderly white man told his wife, as Wallace recounts.
“Well, they’re black kids, honey,” she responded. “Of course they have nothing better to do.”
“We need more dead like him,” another passerby said. “Yay for the white man!”
Still, others found the message moving. A Hispanic woman held her two sons close and told them, “I need you to see this. This is important. Never be afraid to tell the truth.”
One black man, moved to tears, thanked Wallace, telling him, “It’s good to know that somebody sees me.”
While the death of Brown and ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson triggered the protest, Wallace wants to establish that his message transcends this period of time.
“All the stories that have run thus far say that I recreated Mike Brown’s murder,” he told Hyperallergic. “But it wasn’t just Mike Brown — it was the many people of color who have met their demise because of police brutality.”
Although he does not consider himself a performance artist, Wallace considers this particular event performance art, using his body in an act of protest — a “thought-provoking piece of theater” that juxtaposes the bold lettering of Indiana’s “Love” with the imagery of death.
Wallace’s protest is only one of the many reactions from the art world that have emerged from the clashes in Ferguson.
Artist Dread Scott — who recently wrote an op-ed for the Walker Art Center on the subject of Ferguson and whose video “Stop” (2012) in the recent exhibition If You Build It tackled issues of racial profiling — recently shared an image of one of his past works to highlight the unfortunately similar climates of the turn of the century and of today. “Sign of the Time” (1999), an altered hazard sign created in response to the shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo by the NYPD, may well have been created following the gunning down of the unarmed Brown by Ferguson police.
Hank Willis Thomas’s screenprint “And I Can’t Run” (2013) has also resurfaced, shared by a Twitter user and retweeted by Thomas. The image depicts a black, silhouetted figure bound to a post, surveyed by a crowd of white men.
In St. Louis itself, the local arts community has been active in seeking justice for Brown and in contributing to the dialogue, as Art in America‘s Brian Boucher wrote. Today, Freida Wheaton, owner of private residential art gallery Salon 53, launched Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Artists Respond, a national call for artists to submit works reacting to the aftermath of Brown’s killing. Wheaton is working with the Alliance of Black Art Galleries, which plans on exhibiting the works of 250 artists in mid-October.