Art

A Project Meticulously Lays Out the Realities of Modern-Day Slavery

With a scattered display of everyday objects and cryptic legal documents, Cameron Rowland illustrates a long history of systematic racism.

Cameron Rowland: D37 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — At first, the readymade objects in Cameron Rowland’s D37 look like they have little in common. Among them are a leaf blower, 19th-century tax receipts, land assessment paperwork, a stroller, and two cluster of bikes. There are no wall didactics to clarify the relationships between the items in Rowland’s one-room exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which resembles a picked-over garage sale more than fine art.

D37 is an art museum exhibition anomaly. Rowland’s work argues that America’s economy depends on monetizing Black bodies, but he does not prioritize visual language to make his point. Instead, the work is secondary to Rowland’s research. He wants people to hear his case and the visual objects are evidence submitted in his deposition. In MOCA’s promotional materials, there are no photos of the D37 installation, further emphasizing that the objects are not the main focus of this exhibition.

Cameron Rowland: D37 (detail)

Instead, MOCA’s promotional tactic, which can also be picked up in person before entering the exhibition, is a 15-page document that explains everything Rowland is trying to say. He begins with six pages of research — complete with citations, footnotes, and excerpts from constitutional amendments — that details the legalized objectification of slaves, seen as chattel rather than humans, and argues that present-day federal legislation continues to treat African Americans as property. After the research paper, Rowland provides the standard checklist information for each art piece, such as the title, year created, dimensions, and materials, but also offers lengthy descriptions linking the art to his scholarship.

Rowland’s argument is that through redlining, criminalization, and asset forfeiture, Black people are caught in a system that artificially inflates their debt, allows law enforcement agencies to seize property suspected to be used in criminal activity, and uses the income from auctioning the seized items to fund their operations. Rowland defines three different types of forfeiture: “criminal asset forfeiture describes the forfeiture of property from a person charged with a crime. Administrative asset forfeiture describes the forfeiture of property as a result of unpaid debt. Civil asset forfeiture describes the forfeiture of property involved with a crime for which no person has been charged.” He continues, “In a 2001 study of 1,400 municipal and county law enforcement agencies, 60% reported that forfeiture profits were a necessary part of their budget.”

Cameron Rowland: D37 (detail)

In short, Black people are reduced to the value of their property, which is sold to fund a white supremacist institution that benefits from Black suffering. It’s a modern form of violence that stems from slavery and is entrenched in the American economy. Rowland points out that civil asset forfeiture originated in the English Navigation Act of 1660, which allowed the government to seize cargo on a non-English ship if it docked at an English port. Black people, defined as property and the most valuable import at the time, were forcefully removed and auctioned to the highest bidder. The tradition continues with their bikes, power tools, and strollers.

Rowland’s project feels more in the spirit of a history museum than one dedicated to fine art; the objects illustrate history lessons that were never taught in schools. At MOCA, Rowland’s research is shared at a distance — the art museum can claim that an artist’s views doesn’t represent its own, but that it believes in the importance of sharing polemical world views.

Cameron Rowland: D37 (detail)

However, Rowland tries to break down this façade of ideological neutrality by implicating MOCA into the legacy of financial violence that D37 explores. Beside a donor plaque outside the museum’s entrance, Rowland has installed a label explaining the museum’s origins. Bunker Hill, otherwise known as Area No. D37 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation — one of the organizations responsible for redlining Black neighborhoods by issuing poor credit ratings — was once ranked the lowest grade, “low red,” making the land nearly worthless. In 1959, the Community Redevelopment Agency, a governmental organization tasked with clearing slums and blighted areas, decided to revitalize Bunker Hill. “Through seizure and through sales under the threat of eminent domain, all 7,310 residential units were demolished and their residents were forcibly removed,” Rowland writes. In 2015, MOCA purchased the land from the City of Los Angeles for $100,000, though it was actually valued at $8,500,000. Without people of color residing on the land, the worthless property was suddenly lucrative.

With a scattered display of objects and cryptic legal documents, Rowland illustrates a long history of systematic racism. Entire books have been dedicated to untangling the connections between land, property, and Black lives, like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, but Rowland searches for a way to relay this information through familiar, everyday belongings. D37 requires a curious and patient audience, one that doesn’t shy away from legalese and municipal records, and is open to the proposition that research itself can be a work of art.

Cameron Rowland: D37 continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (250 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles) through March 11. 

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