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The Question of Art’s Relation to Racial Equity in Mississippi

A new initiative undertaken at the Mississippi Museum of Art wants to have “more conversations about race.” I didn’t fully understand the need for such a program until I visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

One of the pieces acquired by the CAPE grant: Titus Kaphar, “Darker Than Cotton” (2017) oil on canvas. 63 x 36 in. collection of Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson; gift of the Gallery Guild (© 2018 Titus Kaphar; courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

JACKSON, Miss. — “Racial equity is the elephant in the room. In Mississippi we need to have more conversations about race.” This is the answer given to me by Julian Rankin, the director of the newly inaugurated Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) housed within the Mississippi Museum of Art. I had asked him which narratives he thought were crucial for CAPE and the museum to represent. A deep discussion about race, he continued, is “the most immediate need because of demographics and history.”

In that moment I thought I understood what Rankin meant, having researched a few widely circulated statistics about the state: it was the top cotton-producing state for the first half of the 19th century on the back of slave labor; in 1861, it became the second state to secede from the Union; it did not ratify the 13th amendment (which abolished slavery) until 1995; it has the largest share of black residents of any state in the US; and in this century — and much of the last — it has been at or near the bottom of state rankings in terms of health care, education, and economy. Still, I wouldn’t fully understand what Rankin meant by “demographics and history” until later the next day, when I took a walk to see a different museum a little less than a mile away.

Several weeks ago I had traveled to Jackson on the invitation of the Mississippi Museum of Art, to see its exhibition Picturing Mississippi, 1817–2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise. I subsequently wrote about the show, highlighting its inclusive and forthrightly political analysis (conveyed through captions and wall text), and the innovative curation which interspersed pieces of contemporary art throughout a narrative relating the state’s origins. Several of these artworks were procured through the CAPE initiative, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. As CAPE’s website declares, the center is primarily concerned with using “original artworks, exhibitions, programs, and engagements with artists to increase understanding and inspire new narratives in contemporary Mississippi.” CAPE launched just a month before the opening of Picturing Mississippi, and gave the museum, in Rankin’s words, “purchasing power.” The initiative, according to him, is concerned with “not just acquiring work, but figuring out how to responsibly use it, bringing the public in.”

A second artwork acquired by CAPE funds: McArthur Binion, “DNA: Black Painting: IV”(2015) oil paint stick, graphite, and paper on board. 84 x 84 in.; collection of Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson; museum purchase with W.K. Kellogg Foundation funds for the Center for Art & Public Exchange 2018 (© 2018 McArthur Binion; courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co)

Before explaining the ways in which CAPE would inspire new stories, Rankin discussed how museum staff would cultivate a degree of reflexivity. The first program he mentioned is a partnership the museum has formed with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to provide equity training. Rankin said the institute will help train their staff about implicit and explicit bias, admitting that, as a white man, he has an incomplete understanding of what members of the surrounding community have experienced and what they may need from the museum.

In this vein, CAPE is also in the process of constructing community councils, which will have members representing all the city’s wards, and a national council, composed of leaders in the museum field who, Rankin assures, “will help hold us accountable and guide us.” CAPE will also attempt, as many art organizations do these days, to nurture connections to the corporate sector. Rankin professed that the museum director, Betsy Bradley, is looking to create a corporate leadership seminar, which will work towards developing relationships with for-profit entities that are interested in supporting CAPE’s programs.

Close-looking breakout session at “Bringing Forward the Past: Art, Identity, and the American South” symposium (image courtesy Mississippi Museum of Art)

One of the more fascinating projects that came out of this grant is the CAPE Innovation Lab, where staff plan to engage with structural issues of museum work, such as presentation and captioning. As I pointed out in my previous review, many of the captions in the Picturing Mississippi exhibition illustrate a politically forthright and historically astute curatorial perspective. The lab is currently housing one of the new acquisitions made possible by the new funding: Hank Willis Thomas’s “Flying Geese” (2012), a kind of visual puzzle about mid-20th century black life in which several of the pieces are missing. This photograph collage suggests the piecemeal and fractured nature of black life in the US, a subtle theme echoed in other works also newly acquired.

Hank Willis Thomas, “Flying Geese” (2012), mounted digital c-prints and stained African mahogany; edition three of three; collection of Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson; museum purchase with W.K. Kellogg Foundation funds for the Center for Art & Public Exchange 2017 (© 2018 Hank Willis Thomas; courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

Picturing Mississippi is already evidence of how new acquisitions have changed the nature of the museum’s shows — works by McArthur Binion, Jeffrey Gibson, Hank Willis Thomas, and Benny Andrews have only stretched and deepened the narrative on the state’s history. In addition, CAPE has mounted the currently running exhibition White Gold: Thomas Sayre, an immersive installation piece by artist Thomas Sayre that depicts a forbidding and peculiar landscape pinpricked with images of cotton among large slabs of native earth. This show in particular illustrated for me the potential for new exhibitions under the aegis of CAPE that conscientiously use art as a foundation for communal conversations.

A new public program, Re:frame, took place in the space of White Gold where the senate candidate Michael Espy, and Cindy Ayers-Elliott, who runs the largest urban farm in Jackson, met with visitors to talk about related issues such as sharecropping, the Civil Rights Movement, minority farmers, and historical self-determination. The program ended with a chef offering participants a tasting menu of locally sourced food. Re:frame, described by Rankin as “an experimental programming format engineered by CAPE that brings together combinations of art, music, and a diversity of voices to facilitate public dialogue,” looks quite similar to programs being adopted nationwide by museums that want to cultivate deeper relationships with their visitors, but here, again, that ambition is refracted through the state’s history. I would soon discover why this reckoning with the state’s history is essentially unavoidable in Jackson.

Michael Espy speaking during the Re:frame program (image courtesy the Mississippi Museum of Art)
A taste of locally sourced food at the end of the Re:frame program

After my conversation with Rankin I walked to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, about 20 minutes away on foot. I had heard nothing about it before, though Rankin told me it was the first state-funded civil rights museum of the nation. I arrived thinking I should be able to see most of the museum within an hour or so. But this was not even close to being enough time — I may have spent 20 minutes in the first room alone. The museum is overwhelming in its didactic information, which is presented in visually provocative ways. Many of the accounts were already familiar to me, yet nevertheless, I couldn’t help but watch the films and videos that detailed the forced integration of Ole Miss, the murder of Medgar Evers, and the fraught disappearance of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive undertaken in 1964. All the stories were harrowing. I would need to return to the museum the next day to complete my visit and comprehend the overall narrative being conveyed.

A text display in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (photo by the author)

I did return, and spent two hours more reading in awe and dismay about a concerted campaign undertaken by the majority of the white population that  used every possible tool of social and governmental power to keep black people from the freedoms and rights ostensibly held out to them by the Constitution. Whites systematically used taxes, education policy, housing policy, voter registration, district gerrymandering, boycotts, public transportation, the police force, and all the levers of the jurisprudential complex to essentially tell blacks: stay in your place; the best of you will never be equal to the least of us. More, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan and white Citizens’ Councils, which included car bombings, church burnings, and targeted assassinations, added teeth to this warning. They were saying If you do not stay in your place we will maim and kill you.

Walking back from the museum, I saw no one else on the street. I imagined that being alone, it would not be difficult for a group of organized assailants to grab me and stuff me in the back of van to never be heard from again. In a place where people who look like me were once conscientiously and methodically murdered to maintain a social hierarchy, it became clear that racial equity is not the elephant in the room. This issue constitutes the walls, floorboards, the substructure of electric wiring, and the concrete foundations far beneath the building.

Another exhibit within the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (photo by the author)

CAPE is not merely timely, but necessary — if it indeed is able to address racial inequity and the serrated history that has made Mississippi what it is in this moment. But truly, it is not only Mississippi’s agony. It is the agony of this nation that continues to enshrine, affirm, and protect white supremacy. The question that remains is whether art, by itself, or working in tandem with political organization and cultural intervention, can begin to undo the ideology that supports this system of domination. If not, then “demographics and history” will be written on this nation’s tombstone.

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