Interviews

Dread Scott

Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Performance view, Louisiana, November 8–9, 2019.

For over three decades, Dread Scott has made art that confronts state-sanctioned brutality and racial injustice while imagining revolution. His 2015 flag, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday—a declaration of memorial immensity and stark prolepsis—remains an emblem of the United States’ foundational and ongoing violence against Black people: violence now being challenged as millions take to the streets nationwide in a staggering response to George Floyd’s killing. Below, Scott discusses his past and recent work, art institutions’ response to the current uprisings, and the radical possibility of this moment.

I WISH THE WORK WEREN’T RELEVANT ANYMORE. I posted something to Instagram this morning, a print I did in 2001. It was a picture of Hattie McDaniel in her Gone with the Wind costume, overlaid with the words IF WHITE PEOPLE DIDN’T INVENT AIR, WHAT WOULD WE BREATHE? I like the work, and obviously, at thirty-five, I didn’t think racism would end in five years. But I didn’t necessarily imagine, when I made A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday in 2015, that in 2020 we would be watching videotaped images of police lynchings again and again and again. When I look back to a work like The Blue Wall of Violence—a 1999 installation about police brutality and murder—I realize I’m ready to do flower paintings. I’m joking, but still: We shouldn’t need to spend so much time and energy making work about how the police enforce relations of exploitation and oppression and specifically white supremacy. At this point, I’d really rather be making work about something else. 

We’re living in a very challenging but amazingly beautiful and inspiring time. The murder of Black people by the government is a common occurrence. It’s not news in America. But to have people all across the country fighting back and doing so with passion and heart, standing up to tremendous brutality and oppression, is very inspiring. In the context of that, art can matter. A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, a banner I made in 2015 in response to the death of Walter Scott, has been getting shared a lot recently. The work was inspired by a flag flown by the NAACP in the early twentieth century, and has helped a lot of people understand that police murder is connected to lynching—that police have become the inheritors of lynch mob terror. That isn’t a huge leap for people to take, but I hope that the work crystallizes it in a way that enables viewers and institutions in the realm of culture to engage some complicated questions in new ways.

Last November, I led a twenty-four-mile procession upriver from New Orleans in which hundreds of local Black volunteers reenacted the German Coast Uprising of 1811, the largest revolt by enslaved people in American history. A lot of people thought Slave Rebellion Reenactment was a project about slavery. It wasn’t. It was a project about freedom and emancipation. It created ideas and images of self-liberated Black people. That’s a powerful image that needs to be circulating more right now, as are images like Titus Kaphar’s new cover for TIME and Kambui Olujimi’s ink paintings of Minneapolis’s third police precinct on fire. Images of brutality are also important. But socially engaged artwork often focuses on the horror, when we really need stories of resistance and liberation right now. I hope some people make those images, too. 

Reenactment is a question of history: what history is focused on, who tells it, and how that history exists in the present in a new form. Slave Rebellion Reenactment was about excavating a hidden and buried history about freedom and manumission, about people with a bold vision who tried to overthrow a system of enslavement. The performance wasn’t an artwork about the past so much as one about our present. That’s true for a lot of reenactment. When Jeremy Deller did The Battle of Orgreave in 2001, it wasn’t only to talk about that past but to honor a lot of the miners crushed in 1984 who were on the right side of history. The Thatcherite narrative was that the crushing of the unions and the miners was a good thing that allowed unbridled capitalism to grow the economy. And Deller looked instead at the brutality used to enforce economic brutality. Reenactments like that, or like Jefferson Pinder’s reenactments of Red Summer, are really important. They’re excavating history from the standpoint of the oppressed and diverging from official, distorted histories.

The other day, someone asked me how many museums own A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday and have flown it in the past week. Two museums own the work, although neither has shown it in the past two weeks. It’s also currently on view in an exhibition in Germany. Since the uprisings, a couple of institutions have reached out to acquire the flag, and a museum in Europe wanted to include it in an upcoming exhibition. No one in the US has reached out and said, “We want to show this.” Although I’ve gotten in touch with several institutions I have relationships with, none of them have yet committed to showing the work. A lot of American museums seem to be hedging their bets, trying to navigate this narrow channel in which they can, intentionally or not, contribute to the stability of America and its white supremacy while maintaining a progressive veneer. It’s good that the Walker Art Center looked at their relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department and reconsidered their complicity in oppressive relations. More arts institutions should take risks like that. The question needs to be put to institutions everywhere: Where do you actually stand? 

These are very heavy moments, but this is a time for hope. The resistance that’s happening in the streets in all sorts of ways is a very, very good thing. We should be joyful in the dissent and appreciative of the fact that the people who run this country are terrified and that we have a lot of strength. We need to make this count. I think a fitting way to honor George Floyd would be to make sure that the system that lynched him doesn’t exist anymore. The death of George Floyd should be the harbinger of the death of America.

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