Sheila Pree Bright, #ATLisReady and Black Lives Matter Atlanta Chapter protest shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Atlanta, Georgia, 2016. (all photos courtesy the artist and used with permission)

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.

* * *

“How are we beholden to and beholders of each other in ways that change across time and place and space and yet remain? Beholden in the wake …”

– Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

In Beholding, Black World Making, my next curatorial project, I am thinking with scholar Christina Sharpe’s ruminations on Black people’s ability to behold each other as possible ways beyond anti-Blackness, possible ways to freedom. When I started the planning process, right away I recalled Sheila Pree Bright’s photographic mural Mothers March On (2019). The image acknowledges brutal conditions of racial terror and how some of us recognize and uphold one another. At 60’ x 30’ (18.3 x 9.1m), the portrait, formerly installed near the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, presents a tender and forceful image of nine mothers, who are fighting for justice for their children murdered by police: Tynesha Tilson, Wanda Johnson, Felicia Thomas, Gwen Carr, Monteria Robinson, Dalphine Robinson, Patricia Scott, Montye Benjamin, and Samaria Rice. The mothers are joined by civil rights leader Dr. Roslyn Pope. As these women organize individually and collectively, they know one another’s struggles, they know themselves, they behold each other.

“Mothers March On” builds on Bright’s 2013 mural series 1960 Who, featuring images of Freedom Riders and activists of the Atlanta Student Movement. A portrait of Dr. Roslyn Pope appears in that former series, as well. In 1960, as a 21-year-old Spelman College student, Pope penned “An Appeal for Human Rights.” Over 60 years later, most of the societal areas hampered by segregation that she noted (police brutality is on the list) remain highly fraught. In Bright’s 2019 mural, Pope, who is standing in the front to the right of Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner (central figure), brings forth the energy of that earlier manifesto: “We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time.” Across generations, these women’s struggles resonate. Here we realize that Bright’s photography does not only document. As she threads moments together, the artist critiques today and yesterday. She fuses the organizing of the past with activism of today.

Sheila Pree Bright, “Mothers March On” (2019), installation, 60 feet x 30 feet, black and white, vinyl-print photo mural, Atlanta, Georgia. [from left to right: Tynesha Tilson, Wanda Johnson, Felicia Thomas, Gwen Carr, Monteria Robinson, Dr. Roslyn Pope, Dalphine Robinson, Patricia Scott, Montye Benjamin, and Samaria Rice]

Bright’s work particularly impresses me because it evokes anti-Black state violence, yet avoids the typical trope of spectacularizing the corporeal ruin of Black victims. Over the past several years, she has photographed mass demonstrations against anti-Black state violence in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, documented speeches of loved ones of victims, collaborated with mothers of victims, and exhibited her photography through public art installations as well as fine art institutions. Through her rich on-the-ground experiences, she comes to know her subjects and their perspectives. She has developed a meticulous, personal approach to visualizing freedom struggles. To me, Bright’s practice corresponds to what Sharpe calls “wake work” — the visionary, careful project of imagining paths beyond anti-Blackness that care about Black people. Her style honors Black people’s history, presence, and ongoing re-imagining.

Through insisting on Black life and celebrating Black mothers, the mural opposes stereotypes. Representations of Black mothers are rarely considered universal devotional signs in the US because of chattel slavery’s afterlives. For hundreds of years, the routine commodification of Black flesh and reproductive capacities often removed Black women’s bodies from conceptualizations of the feminine, motherhood, and personhood. This sordid system considered Black women’s bodies as not belonging to themselves. This system tried to deny Black enslaved mothers motherhood. In a sense, within this vile rubric, oppressors considered Black mothers as, to borrow Sharpe’s expression, “un/mothers.” Their children were considered commodities destined to serve as unhuman, unpaid laborers. So, in a cruel sense, they were always already lost. This maliciousness persists in contemporary visual culture, which regularly depicts Black women through exploitative stereotypes, including mammies, jezebels, and so-called “welfare queens.”

Sheila Pree Bright, Protest, “All Night, All Day, We’re Gonna Fight for Freddie Gray,” 2015.

In contrast, Bright’s depiction counters stereotypes as it stresses Black mothers’ memory, determination, love, and corporeality. Through the repetition of standing figures, the portrait insists on the integrity of Black bodily form. The women speak back to lynching culture. With rose petals at their feet, like fallen bodies of their murdered sons, these mothers, on the front-lines of state violence, refuse to relent. They know who and what has been taken from them; they will never forget. Their stance, varied expressions, and the image’s outdoor setting calls forth that key passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Standing in the woods, the “unchurched preacher” Baby Suggs cautions her congregation:

“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

Sheila Pree Bright, “Say Her Name” protest, 2016.

While navigating public roles through their struggles for justice, the women of Mothers March On continue to love their hearts, their families. Caring for Black families in an anti-Black state always involves negotiating immense power disparities. During acute state violence — the murder of Black children and the state’s protection of the killers — that labor intensifies. The various activist work of these mothers’ is astounding, and they include organizing family support groups, such as Georgia Moms United, legislative advocacy of Georgia House Bill 378, Use of Force Data Collection Act to track police violence, and developing youth centers, such as the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center. Whatever forces make it possible for them to keep going, to behold themselves, to fight for justice are potent and world-making.

* * *

Beholding, Black World Making marks a progression in my curatorial praxis. Although much of my training has been in White art museums, over the years I created numerous para-institutional and non-institutional freedom projects. Through this work and my studies, my knowledge of the entanglements of slavery, colonialism, gender, and capitalism advanced. During this time, I also witnessed the endurance of white supremacist, colonialist practices in monied arts institutions. Living that tension urged me to consider the limitations and possibilities of the arts. I remain committed to developing projects that center Black life and collective care. But now I have a deeper understanding of how pace, orientation, relationships, and strategy coalesce to generate movement.

“How will it change anything?” This inquiry came about when I organized my December 2020 multimedia teach-in, The Art of Collective Care & Responsibility: Handling Images of Black Suffering and Death. At that five-day virtual event, Black cultural producers — activists, artists, writers, curators, and educators — discussed the commonplace harm imposed on Black life through visual culture methodologies and their modes for caring for Black people. Opening with thoughts from Christina Sharpe and Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, I knew the gathering would be a touchstone for many arts and museum professionals. However, as for hindering the prevalent uncritical practices of appropriating and displaying images of Black people’s bodies being violated, I understood that something ongoing and multi-faceted would be required.

This something — which is, of course, not one thing, but rather a range of practices — foremost must recognize that images of Black suffering and death are necessary in white supremacist, colonialist, capitalist enterprise. [1] Images of Black degradation cohere the nation-state. [2] Visual inspection and consumption of Black flesh is tradition here. Many people, including arts professionals, camouflage their participation in this hegemonic parasitism as empathic endeavors — opportunities for non-Black people to project themselves into Blackness, to feel subjection, and yet feel supremacy in being able to masquerade and retreat again to the “safety” of non-Blackness. Rooted in webs of desire, this anti-Black libidinal visual economy refuses care for those most harmed and magnifies vast power and wealth disparities in the arts and beyond. Uprooting these forces is not simply an issue of providing more education or more information. This matter involves nonrational registers. Toppling this elusive, yet pervasive, phenomenon requires skills and sensibilities beyond conventional curatorial and museological practices. In fact, the arts and museum spheres, areas that many claim are democratic, and even neutral, are mired in racial capitalism. Museums are rooted in capitalism supported through slavery, racial hierarchies, genocide, settler colonialism, and imperialism.

Sheila Pree Bright, “Say Her Name” protest, 2016.

While still in the developing stages, Beholding, Black World Making marks my renewed efforts to “imagine and build structural change for thriving Black futures beyond systemic violence.” Here, I am leaning into what I believe, drawing from a wide range of my skills and interests, and allowing myself to explore the many ways caring for people subjected to violence, beholding can unfold as curatorial and life praxis. I envision Beholding, Black World Making as a series of networked exhibitions, installations, and programming that engage Black and anti-colonial pedagogies of fugitivity, abolition, collectivity, and co-resistance. In this slower-paced process, I bend exhibition-making methods and frameworks to serve the work of fostering community-centered actions grounded in relationality, collective care, and beholding. I imagine this project will strengthen my faith in those of us who care. [3] Loving ourselves is the prize. While we mourn anti-Black violence, we also embrace the magnitude of Black love, determination, and imagination. 

Beholding, Black World Making will commence via virtual workshops during summer 2022. My collaboration with Sheila Pree Bright will reinstate “Mothers March On” as a national public art intervention during 2022, specifics TBD.

* * *

NOTES

[1] The scholarship of Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Frank B. Wilderson III regarding the political role of representations of Black suffering and death is especially elucidating.
See Art of Collective Care & Responsibility Teach-in Visual Ethics Reference Guide.

[2] Calvin Warren, Zoé Samudzi, and William C. Anderson are some of various scholars, who have discussed the pivotal role of anti-Black violence. Calvin Warren, “Barred Objects (ø): Police Brutality, Black Fetishes, and Perverse Demonstrations,” The Comparatist, 45: 2021. Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson, As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation, Chico, CA: AK Press, 2018. Frank B. Wilderson III’s reflection on the instrumental role of contemporary images of anti-Black violence is particularly striking. Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020, 219 – 226.

[3] The expression “those who care” thinks with Christina Sharpe’s meditation.
See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2016, 7.

The Latest

Avatar photo

La Tanya S. Autry

Cultural organizer La Tanya S. Autry exercises her liberatory curatorial praxis through developing exhibitions and programming in institutional spaces and various non-institutional collaborative freedom...