We’ve Always Been Here: A Portrait of the US by Two Black Artists

fig 1 Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday, installation photograph, courtesy of Moberg Gallery, Des Moines Iowa, July 2015
Dread Scott, “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” (2015), installation view (image courtesy Moberg Gallery)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Divisions of race, class, and place haunt aspirations for equality and justice in the US. This is made clear in the exhibition Make Their Gold Teeth Ache, curated by artist and activist Jordan Weber at Moberg Gallery, which portrays the US from the perspective of artists of color. The exhibit signals its subject with two enormous flags immediately at the entrance: one, with white letters on a black ground, declares: “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday”; the other, the Confederate flag, hangs from a noose above an auction block. Glimpsed just behind them is a painting of a black man painting himself white, and in the back of the gallery a video emits sounds of shouts, sirens, smashing glass, and the ceaseless report of gunshots.

On July 25, Jordan Weber presented an event hosted by the Des Moines Art Center and invited two prominent artists shown in the exhibit, Dread Scott and John Sims, to elaborate on their ideas. They pulled no punches, speaking with candor of their work and the issues it elaborates, detailing overt and covert disparities that result from unequal treatment of persons based on race — failures within American systems of jurisprudence, law enforcement, and education. The artists, in lively discussion with the audience, proposed solutions ranging from advocating radical change, to communism, and even revolution.

And all this talk of insurgency took place in Des Moines, Iowa.

fig 2 John Sims, The Proper Way to Buy a Hanging Confederate Flag, 2015, installation photograph, courtesy of Moberg Gallery, July 2015
John Sims, “The Proper Way to Buy a Hanging Confederate Flag” (2015), installation view (image courtesy Moberg Gallery) (click to enlarge)

People in Iowa are almost tired of explaining to amazed outsiders that, yes, there are black people in Iowa and racial inequities that matter to the nation are of consequence here. Despite the internet and increasing integration of local and global spheres, the divisions of race and place perpetuate the myth of an isolated and unchanging Iowa: an old-fashioned, quaint place, outside of time. Therefore there is no disharmony. Therefore it is imagined to be homogenous and white. This results in a sweeping erasure. The mythology about Iowa makes the black population become invisible to the rest of the nation.

Yet, like all cities in the US, Des Moines has multiple races. The 2010 census showed Des Moines’s black population at 10.2% — quite close to 13.2%, the national average for that year. And the mixed race population of Des Moines tops the national average, with 3.4% claiming two or more races compared to 2.4% for the nation as a whole. The city’s demographics present all too familiar disjunctions. Des Moines has basked in the glow of being identified as the best city for young adults, the second-best location in the country for business, and its unemployment rate is 5%. But these buoyant statistics mask the extreme 38% divergence between average income of blacks and whites, placing Des Moines below the median in wage disparities in US metropolitan areas: 27th out of 417.

The people in Des Moines have long participated in conversations of race and lived in multiracial communities. Among the audience members at the lecture was a woman whose grandfather was a corporal in the Corps d’Afrique, Company D of the Union Cavalry, fighting in New Orleans in the Civil War; her husband helped create an artist colony for artists of color in the 1960s. And, at the age of 16, she was the first black woman to integrate Drake University’s women’s dormitory. Another audience member had been the liaison for visiting emissaries such as Jessie Jackson; another’s older brother had been a leader in the Des Moines Black Panthers during the most turbulent years. And younger activists, who participated in the forceful protests in Ferguson, also numbered in the audience.

fig 3 Kohshin Finley, Camouflage for the Modern Man, 2015, oil and mixed media on canvas. Photograph courtesy of Koshin Finley
Kohshin Finley, “Camouflage for the Modern Man” (2015), oil and mixed media on canvas (photo courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha asserts that agency is about “challenging the boundaries of discourse and subtly changing its terms.” By locating Make Their Gold Teeth Ache in Iowa, Weber’s exhibit challenges racial profiling and the provincialism people ascribe to areas outside of cultural centers. Dread Scott and John Sims go further than creating visual spectacles to question cherished values. At times, their art treads those values underfoot, burns them, discolors them.

Sims explained to Hyperallergic: “I like playing on opposites. I like playing with dualities clashing them and trying to find a mid-point or intersection. Sometimes out of that you get a good joke, sometimes you get a disaster, and sometimes a synergetic art work…” Proficient in math, Sims refers to himself as a “political math artist” — he discovered racialization in an unlikely arena, namely, in our culture’s bias toward the discipline of mathematics. At the lecture, he stated: “I’m very interested in the issue of race and identity — looking at white supremacy in the visual landscape but also in the classroom: the tension and civil war between math and art.” Introducing the term “ethnomathematics,” Sims described how math is encoded into culture to function as a silent but insidious agent for attitudes of superiority.

We tend to imagine math and art as opposites — proficiency in one arena means incapacity in the other. This false dichotomy is made even more divisive by delegating mathematics as the litmus test of intelligence. Math is taken as a stand-in for good reasoning, but such formal reasoning does not address the full scope of human intelligence. Yet math remains the gatekeeper for high-paid work such as medicine and law. It is telling that groups in inferior positions in society — blacks, women, artists — are assumed to be inferior in math skills. Sims said: “You tell someone they can’t do math and that is connected to the issue of intelligence. Then you’ve already cut them in half.” He didn’t have to connect the dots for the audience to understand that math serves as a cudgel, disadvantaging black children whose elementary education in math falls short of that taught in predominantly white schools.

Sims takes art and math out of the classroom by integrating both fields in his work. In his 13 different “pi-quilts,” math is both a structuring principle and a design element. For each numeral of the number pi, Sims designated a color: 3 was blue, 1 was yellow, and so forth. He then worked with Amish women, who quilted color grids of pi. A simple mathematic exercise allowed Sims to extend his visualization of pi to absorb cultural metaphors. For pi in base 2, Sims needed a binary color system, so he chose black and white — “Black White Pi.” For pi in base three, the triad of red, white, and blue became “American Pi.”

fig 5 John Sims, Pi in Black and White, 2008, 8’ x 8’, cotton, photograph courtesy of John Sims
John Sims, “Pi in Black and White” (2008), 8’ x 8’, cotton (photo courtesy John Sims)

Sims likes to work in multiples, creating projects in which each piece generates another, creating a network of meaning. This is seen in his work “Afro Confederate Flag” (2000), from his Recoloration Proclamation project. Reflecting on this year — 2015 — as the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and recent events in the South Carolina, Sims’s attention was drawn to the “visual terrorism” of the Confederate flag, a symbol of segregation and division between ‘your history’ versus ‘our history.’ Incensed that the flag had the potential to incite such emotions, Sims set out to undermine the flag’s power. “How to subvert it? First, recolor it red, black, and green” — colors deriving from the Pan-African flag. As Sim explained at the lecture, he then created a variety of color options that he took to the streets. “I asked people to pick which one they liked and here they are looking at this terrible image but I subverted it into this exercise about possibilities and desire and hierarchies. And it’s quizzical, so they got into it and for minutes they forget they were even looking at the Confederate flag. Now they were looking at the flag out of a particular context, looking at it in a commentary context: ‘oh I like this, no this should be green, you really need to have yellow.’ People started to put their own thing on the table.” By creating possibilities and inviting people to choose a preference, the flag no longer dominated emotions but, for the moment, was reduced to a pattern over which people had control. By working with the audience, Sims created art that countered — queered — a symbol that is usually divisive. 

John Sims, Afro-Confederate Flag, photograph courtesy of John Sims
John Sims, “Afro-Confederate Flag” (photo courtesy John Sims)

Like Sims, Dread Scott dissolves boundaries between categories generally understood as oppositions: art and politics, past and present, dream and action. We all know the maxim that those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it, but Scott’s work takes this several crucial steps further: from knowing about the past, to gaining insights into what the past reveals, to dreaming about using those insights to attain greater freedoms, to activism.

Scott’s art radically alters what we thought we knew about domination and oppression. He told Hyperallergic: “Even when I’m looking at the past, my work is really about the present and the choices people make now. Very radical thinking came from enslaved people and is something that modern day people can learn philosophically, methodologically and in terms of dreaming, dreaming about freedom.”

In Scott’s art, the past is not just the opening act for the present but it continues through the present, although in a new form. He refers to this as “bringing history forward.” Often taking “black history” as his starting point, he brings it into the present in such a way that we gain a new understanding of US history that resonates across racial groups. At the lecture, Scott explained:

A lot of my work is focusing on the conditions of black people in the society. Not exclusively — but there would not be a United States as it is today. Slavery is the foundation of America. And to talk about any sort of social change and not look at the condition of black people as well as the vital role we had to play in radically transforming the world would be wrong.

Through engaging with Scott’s work we see the long historical roots of present circumstance. Scott shared his intention: “It is very necessary to both reference this past and update it.” For instance, while most Americans are aware that lynching occurred, most do not know that 1965 was the first year in which no lynchings were publicly announced in the US. Scott’s artwork, “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” was motivated by the epidemic of recent police killings. The piece riffs on the phrase “a man was lynched yesterday” printed on a banner that hung from the window of the NAACP offices in New York from the 1930s onward whenever a person was lynched, alerting passersby of the latest violence. By echoing the iconography and text, Scott prompts the audience to reflect on the legitimacy in equating recent police killing with lynching.

Scott’s performance “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide” (2014) references an incident memorialized in an iconic photograph from the 1960s: fire hoses turned full strength on students who had left their classes to join the protest for civil rights. What startled Scott was the photograph’s brutal, graphic illustration of Jim Crow, a violence usually concealed in the daily patterns of life. Only resistance to the law made it visible. Scott’s art performance enacted some of the ferocity in the photograph as he leaned into the high velocity spray of water from a fire hose, his hands held in the gesture ‘Hands up don’t shoot.’

fig 9 Dread Scott, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, performance still 1, 2014, photograph courtesy of Dread Scott
Dread Scott, “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide” (2014), performance still (photo courtesy Dread Scott)

Scott speaks of the impossibility of achieving freedom in a country founded on slavery and genocide. For him, this is one contradiction that cannot be reconciled. “America is a country founded on genocide and slavery, and there would be no America without it,” he told Hyperallergic. “The freedom dreamed of by the founding fathers was predicated on owning slaves … the economic foundation is slavery.” He pointed to what we know too well today: that a small fraction of the population controls the wealth and with it the legal system and much of the access to knowledge. “Billions of people are excluded from intellectual development and participation in society. What kind of world is this where the simple statement ‘black lives matter’ has to be said?”

The process of inclusion involves shifting power. No one relinquishes power voluntarily; therefore, such a shift is difficult. “In terms of responsibility, people that want to see a different world have to fight as if the future matters, fight as if our lives matter.” In bringing history forward, Scott’s ultimate objective is to help propel a future in which his work is not needed. He said:

I’ve tended to look at the most visible horrific excesses in some of my work, some of the real things people need to confront in this society, as part of imagining what needs to be different. I don’t want to be making work about the next hash tag person shot by a cop. I want my work to be obsolete some day. But at this point it’s very urgently necessary.

The artists do not exempt the art world from their biting insights regarding hierarchy and inclusion. Both Sims and Scott are well aware of contradictions in their own positions. All artists today who want to have an impact within the arts but at the same time address social issues face this difficulty. They have the uncomfortable position of having one eye on the prize — art world acceptance — and the other eye on a different audience, hoping to facilitate social change. Sims and Scott’s primary focus is to put their art into contact with more people, beyond museums and galleries. At the lecture, Scott reversed the usual thinking about the hierarchy between artist and gallery: “I’m trying to actually contribute to a movement for revolution that enables people to radically change the world and so I’m willing to go have conversations wherever they can be had including walking the complex dance of working with these institutions.”

fig 8 A Man Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (1)
A flag hanging from a window of the New York City headquarters for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1936 (image courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Categories are not inherent; they are constructed by authority to organize perception in a manner that maintains its power. In order to create a more just society, it’s not enough to just address disadvantaged groups — witness the failures in the “war on poverty,” “crime stoppers,” “no child left behind.” Categories are always relational and our success in increasing justice resides in how we construct the categories themselves. Both Sims and Scott link racial inequities to issues of class and access, and numerous other divisions, which their artworks reveal, resist, and re-contextualize. They create and perform art not just to depict political action but as a political action.

Weber’s curatorial initiative stimulated a rare and positive exchange that would otherwise not have happened, among local audiences and visiting artists eager for that discourse. Scott made this clear at the lecture: “This show, which is responding to the times we live in, is not happening in NY or in LA, but it is happening here.” Let’s continue having “here” be everywhere. And, echoing Sims: “However we can burn up the grid, let’s do it.”

Make Their Gold Teeth Ache continues at Moberg Gallery (2921 Ingersoll Ave, Des Moines, Iowa) through August 22. 

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