Hands up, Don’t shoot! I can’t breathe!
Black Lives Matter! No justice No peace!
I know that we can overcome because I had a dream,
A dream we tore this racist broken system apart at the seams.
These rallying slogans, which evoke images of the 2014 Ferguson protests, Eric Garner’s last breaths, and countless exasperated cries to draw attention to the nation’s endemic police brutality, have become emblematic of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet in this instance, instead of shouting in the streets, these slogans were turned into lyrics sung by the trembling, beleaguered voice of singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson. On Tuesday at the California African American Museum, her elegiac recording “At the Seams” ushered visitors, protest placards in hand, through the exhibition No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992.
For the final program before the show’s closing weekend, Black Lives Matter co-founder and artist Patrisse Khan-Cullors performed “Remembering ‘92,” a moving tribute not only to those lives lost in the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, but to the countless black women and men killed by police brutality and domestic terrorism. The performance was the city’s latest iteration of Black Lives Matter art-activism, following last year’s performance at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Khan-Cullors and artist Tanya Lucia Bernard recited the names of African Americans shot by the police and shared a poetic dialogue about the nature of blackness. In Tuesday’s performance, Khan-Cullors’s slow-moving, nearly 30-minute march around the exhibition space was remarkably silent until the closing scene. Instead of invoking the names of the dead, now eternally branded into the public consciousness, she turned to quiet remembrance.
At the start of the piece, the gallery — filled with about 60 art enthusiasts, activists, and others — had an air of historical reverence. Dawson, singing like the steadfast voice of black history, lulled us along. The room was sectioned by off-center dividers and a looming 1990s LAPD cop car, forcing visitors to swirl around the room, confronting a visual timeline of violence and rebellion in LA. The untarnished police vehicle, with its huge physical presence in the room, stood in for the LAPD’s overwhelming and continual presence in the city’s communities of color.
There was no way to know how to move through the room. Even the chairs, which were collected in different corners, did not point to any stage, any center on which we should focus our attention. Perhaps that was the intention of the exhibition’s curator, historian Tyree Boyd-Pates: that in both the movement for black lives and this dark history of struggle, there isn’t any central figure, no leading force except the power of blackness.
Then, suddenly, amidst the confusion, Khan-Cullors emerged carrying a bouquet of pink and white roses, taking measured steps along the room’s perimeter. She walked in a solitary funeral procession, laying flowers for the slain and the survivors as Dawson’s song looped back to the refrain.
Khan-Cullors ended her march in front of a wall commemorating the 1965 Watts Riots. She picked up a final bouquet of flowers and began to tighten her body and shake. The tranquility of the procession was over; she was embodying a new chapter of anxiety and mounting rage. She jumped up and down with the bouquet in tow. She bowed her body, each time releasing a rose. The ritual continued as the music cut, giving way to audio of Khan-Cullors herself speaking about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement and its subsequent demonizing by members of the US government.
When the audio stopped, Khan-Cullors grabbed a stack of protest signs laid against the wall and held them over her head, again marching across the room, staring pleadingly at audience members. The hearse she had made of her body when she entered now transformed into the anger and uprising of a community. She shouted “Black Lives Matter” until her voice broke. For a moment, in the ringing aftermath, it seemed as if the room would shatter. Whatever disorienting swirl of historical and present violence had flown about the room, it all came to a standstill now.
She thanked the crowd and we all briefly discussed what struck us in the performance. One woman described it as the “joining of two worlds.” I was reminded of a line in Terrance Hayes’s ekphrastic poem “Four Premonitions on Migration,” which he penned in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015. Hayes wrote:
Could black people be incarnations
Of Time? Yes, because Time, like the Negro, carries
The past as if it were a rucksack holding the Sunday
Dress a mother and daughter walking North sewed
From the suit of a corpse left to dry and rot in Dixie.
On Tuesday night, Khan-Cullors carried the weight of distorted, brutalized time — and its continuous collapsing down on the backs of black folks. She called this an act of “sharing.” Her performance purposefully did not mention the names of slain African-Americans like other Black Lives Matter art; it was spoken in the language of modern day social movements and its scope spanned far beyond the present. She created a dialogue with the past, sending an affirming message to the dead that Black History Matters; Black Lives that were lost or continued, unknown and unnamed, all Matter.
In the Q&A that followed, Boyd-Pates noted that Khan-Cullors’s work “gives an opportunity to start fresh, to start over” after upheaval. The artist reminded us that while her performance came two weeks after the attacks in Charlottesville, it also coincided with the 226th anniversary of the Haitian revolution, when enslaved Haitians successfully ousted French colonizers. As a medium between two worlds, her embodiment of injustice exemplified what happens when we share. When we contort our bodies in a radical openness, there will and must always be a fissure of opportunity for renewal, unbridled emotion, and a rewriting of history as our own.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s “Remembering ‘92,” took place on Tuesday, August 22; the exhibition No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992 continues through August 27 at the California African American Museum (Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles, California).