Almost one year after the shooting of Michael Brown by former police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of Brown’s death has re-appeared in the form of an artwork in a Chicago gallery. “Confronting Truths: Wake Up,” shown at Gallery Guichard, features a life-size sculptural rendering of a lifeless Brown lying face-down behind police tape, surrounded by yellow evidence markers and a replica of the 18-year-old’s red Cardinals baseball cap. The exhibition, which opened on Friday, is the first solo show of Ti-Rock Moore, a New Orleans artist whose previous works also engage with issues of race. It features 50 pieces by Moore, including a noose, a black Statue of Liberty, and the words “WHITE PRIVILEGE” intersecting to form a cross, but the Michael Brown sculpture soon garnered backlash from viewers. Moore, who is white, marks her identity as the starting point of her work; the show’s press release quotes her as saying, “Honestly and frankly, I explore white privilege through my acute awareness of the unearned advantage my white skin holds.”
Many have accused Moore of unnecessarily revisiting trauma and exploiting Brown’s death under the guise of art. On Sunday, Johnetta “Netta” Elizie, a leader of We the Protestors, visited the exhibition and live-streamed it on Periscope to her over 50,000 followers, triggering even more criticism. (The entire video is online.) On the Root, senior writer Kirsten West Savali penned one of the more poignant responses so far, in which she accuses Moore of “revictimizing” Brown.
“My reaction is to her having her white hands on Michael Brown’s black body when he’s not here to protect himself,” Savali wrote, comparing Moore’s handling of the body to Kenneth Goldsmith’s dramatic reading of the autopsy report as a form of poetry.
As public outrage mounted, the gallery pointed out that it had reached out to Brown’s family prior to the exhibition’s opening, responding to many angry tweets it received with a photograph of his mother Lesley McSpadden and other family members posing with Moore. Although a short statement from Brown’s father, posted on his Facebook profile on Saturday, suggested that the gallerists had not actually received his approval, they continued to use familial consent as a defense. However, in an interview that aired yesterday evening, Michael Brown’s father said that he found the exhibition “really disturbing, disgusting.”
“That thought, that picture is still in my head,” he told FOX2. “The feelings that I kind of tried to ball up and put to the side a little bit … that just brought the whole day back to life. I have no problem with the person who created it, but I think they should have reached out to both sides of the family.”
According to the Guardian, McSpadden, too, had a painful surprise when she saw the show in person. Although she had allowed Moore to include an artwork of her son in the exhibit, McSpadden had assumed the piece was a photograph rather than a realistic mannequin. She asked the gallery to cover the installation during her visit, which it reportedly did.
As Savali notes on the Root, what’s especially striking about this incident is the language both the gallery and Moore use to present the show. Gallerist Andre Guichard labelled the exhibit as a “courageous” move by his space, and the press release champions it, too, as “PROVOCATIVE, ILLUMINATING, COURAGEOUS!”
The promotional flyer features a prominent headshot of Moore, with smaller images of the actual works below; a larger version of it also hangs outside the gallery. It seems odd that so much attention is focused on Moore when the show is supposedly about her white privilege. Revisiting her statement of her work, which the flyer includes while denying its reader any specific context to the art, it’s hard to ignore that although Moore’s words seek to portray her as an ally to the black community, they simultaneously have a tinge of a self-rewarding tone [emphasis added]: “I explore white privilege through my acute awareness of the unearned advantage my white skin holds.”
Despite all the controversy the show has stirred, Gallery Guichard intends to stand behind Moore and keep all of her works on view. As Frances Guichard told the Guardian, “This [exhibition] is something that needs to stay alive because we need to do what Ti-Rock says and understand what white privilege does to the African American community.”
Hyperallergic reached out to both Moore and the gallery but received no response to requests for comment.