PRINT September 2022


View of “A Site of Struggle: American Art Against Anti-Black Violence,” 2022, Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. From left: Alison Saar, Strange Fruit, 1995; Pat Ward Williams, Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock, 1986. Photo: Clare Britt.

THIS PAST SUMMER, denizens of and visitors to Chicago had the opportunity to engage with three extraordinary modes of Black feminist curatorial practice that spanned the breadth of the city. At the South Side Community Art Center, zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o’neal and LaMar R. Gayles Jr. mounted the revelatory “Emergence: Intersections at the Center”; at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Naomi Beckwith, deputy director and chief curator of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, unveiled her superb retrospective of queer Chicago artist Nick Cave, “Forothermore”; and at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Illinois, Janet Dees presented the first iteration of “A Site of Struggle: American Art Against Anti-Black Violence,” arguably the most emotionally challenging of the three shows, especially in light of the cataclysms that have roiled the United States since the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

In the preface to the catalogue for “A Site of Struggle,” Artforum contributing editor Huey Copeland argues that “in illuminating the varied material forms, regardless of aesthetic hierarchies, that responses to anti-Blackness took and took up, the exhibition provides an important new model that reflects the impact of African American, performative, and material culture studies on cutting-edge art-historical praxis.” On the eve of the show’s conclusion in Evanston, as it prepared to move to its final venue in Montgomery, Alabama, the magazine invited Copeland to speak with Dees to expand on the challenges, opportunities, and vistas she encountered in the collective process of conceptualizing and framing “A Site of Struggle,” particularly given the needs, concerns, and histories of its audiences and constituencies. The resulting conversation not only provides insight into a singular exhibition but also offers provisional answers to many of the key questions facing ethically attuned curators today.

“What would it mean for African Americans to be engaging with this exhibition while folks from other backgrounds were also in the space?” —Janet Dees

HUEY COPELAND: One of the numerous striking things about “A Site of Struggle” is that it feels both incredibly timely and deeply historical in a way that puts pressure on American narratives of racial progress. I wonder if you might speak about how approaching the problem of anti-Black violence and artistic responses to it in the United States with an expansive temporal durée in mind shifted your sense of what the show might accomplish?

JANET DEES: Well, thank you so much for that question, Huey. While the show is organized thematically and not temporally, it is framed by the historical period that begins with the rise of anti-lynching activism in the 1890s and ends with the founding of Black Lives Matter in 2013. With only one exception, David Antonio Cruz’s painting [anotherroadblockinourway, butifwegowegotogether, the detroit kids, 2020], which honors three 2019 victims of trans- and homophobic violence, all the works were either created between 1895 and 2013 or refer to a historical instance of racial violence that took place between those dates. This was purposeful, to make both a sociohistorical and an art-historical intervention.

One, it was to frame conversations about current incidents of anti-Black violence as part of a long continuum with deep historical roots, which to rectify will require approaches that are not superficial but that take this long history into account. I also wanted to hold space for our communities as we think about how long we have been in this space of mourning.

Two, at some point it felt like conversations around contemporary practice were happening as if this was the first time artists were struggling with these ideas. And we see, in fact, that there’s a long history of artists engaging with anti-Black violence.

HC: I think that leads nicely to the second question I have for you. The how, where, when, and with whom of the exhibition are just as important as what is shown within it—perhaps even more than in previous curatorial interventions addressing these complicated questions of race, violence, and representation. I’m wondering if you can talk about the process of organizing the show, the various stakeholders you aimed to center, and the ethical imperatives that guided your work, especially considering that art institutions have historically turned a blind eye to such questions and constituencies?

JD: Well, the show is a truly collaborative endeavor, and I may talk about the second part of that question first, thinking about whom I wanted to center.

HC: Fantastic.

JD: There were a few key constituencies that I had in mind to engage as potential “first users” of the exhibition: the undergraduate and graduate students as well as the faculty and staff of Northwestern University, of which the museum is a part, plus the people of Evanston, Illinois, where Northwestern University is situated. Oftentimes, work that’s happening around the histories and struggles of African Americans within Evanston, because it’s the next-door neighbor of Chicago, gets overlooked.

But another core constituency was the museum staff, particularly the visitor-services staff. It’s primarily made up of people of color, and they would be spending the most time with the exhibition and having the most regular contact with visitors. So there’s the local level—the museum and the university and our community—and then the national level: this constellation of scholars and museum colleagues and artists who have been working on these topics.

In terms of the process, there were really two tracks of research, one that focused on the exhibition content and a second on developing best practices for presenting this material in the context of an art museum. Research was undertaken in consultation with a group of national advisers who were all scholars and content experts on histories of racial violence and representation, and this was anchored by a convening that was held in October 2018. And the how and with whom were really informed by both my deep personal understanding of the necessity of presenting this work and also the need to provide visitor support for the experience and learning from other museum colleagues across the country who have engaged in analogous projects. Conversations with other colleagues were anchored by a convening that took place in April 2019 and a collaboration with the Black Arts Consortium, which is an organization that was founded at Northwestern.

Howardena Pindell, Four Little Girls, 2020, mixed media on canvas, toys, found materials. Installation view, Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 2022. Photo: Clare Britt.

HC: It sounds like this was a very long-term process of dialogue and relationship-building. I mean, you started having conversations in 2018, but when did the thinking begin? Just to give us a sense of what the time frame is for pulling off something that’s so thoughtfully engaged.

JD: Well, the seed of the idea for the exhibition was actually with me in 2015 when I interviewed for my position at the Block, and I shared that in my interview process. The fact that I was met with openness and a sense of understanding of the importance of a project like this made me feel that this was a place I could come to work. It really started with works that had haunted me over many years, such as Carl and Karen Pope’s video Palimpsest [1998–99], which was in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and Pat Ward Williams’s iconic Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock [1986].

In early 2018, the research and planning began in earnest. So it was roughly a six-year process—if you include the development of the initial idea, research into the content and best practices, and relationship-building—to develop an exhibition with the framework of care and a constellation of programming and engagement that would really resonate with the local and university communities and where there would be a sense of ownership.

The final component was the development of an Evanston-based advisory group consisting of people in the community who were working at the intersection of racial and social justice and in the arts. Our work with them was delayed a bit by the pandemic—it really started almost a year before the opening of the exhibition.

HC: Did those conversations that you had, the relationships that you developed, shift what was in the exhibition or how it was framed? In particular, I’m thinking about the strategic placement of the Howardena Pindell canvas Four Little Girls [2020]. Its staging suggests that there were certain concerns and considerations that also governed your design of the exhibition spaces and viewers’ movement through them.

Cover of Ida B. Wells’s A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Cause of Lynching in the United States 1892–1893–1894 (Donohue & Henneberry, 1895).

JD: I think those conversations actually reaffirmed some decisions about the exhibition. First, the decision to mount it at all; it was seen as a difficult but necessary proposition that would be a resource to support ongoing activist and educational work.

Those conversations also emphasized the need for supportive structures. For example, we developed an expanded visitor’s guide, coming out of the visitor-services staff’s desire for something that they could hand to guests that would answer many questions rather than their having to be in continual dialogue. In addition to information about the exhibition and FAQs, it lists as resources units and organizations at Northwestern and in Evanston and Chicago that visitors could connect with for further information and support.

Those conversations also prompted us to think about what it would mean for visitors to experience the exhibition in a mixed viewing environment. What would it mean for African Americans to be engaging with this exhibition while folks from other backgrounds were also in the space? And how could we think about inviting other visitors to be as thoughtful and careful with the well-being of their fellow visitors as we were trying to be as staff and members of the institution?

Bayeté Ross Smith, Got the Power: Montgomery, 2022, steel, aluminum, cassette tapes, boomboxes. Installation view, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama.

So when you walk into the exhibition, the first thing you see is not an artwork but this invitation asking guests to help create an environment of mindful and respectful visitorship. A lot of that language came out of research conducted with my colleagues in the engagement department looking not only at other art exhibitions but also Holocaust museums and memorials to the Rwandan genocide. What behavior are these kinds of institutions asking of visitors?

There are other structures of care, including a resource room that has a mini-library. There’s also a video in that room that features me and four other colleagues who were involved with the project talking about why we are committed to this work and how we support ourselves emotionally and psychologically while engaging with this material. One of our university colleagues thought it would be useful for visitors to have that kind of first-person voice to connect with—to know that there are actual individual people behind this work and to hear why we do it and how we support ourselves, even if it’s difficult.

Additionally, there was codeveloped programming that came out of our advisory group. For example, there was a program that focused on the 1935 anti-lynching exhibition that was organized by the NAACP that featured the late art historian Margaret Rose Vendryes in conversation with the president of our local Evanston NAACP. There was a program with Prentis Hemphill, who is an embodiment coach and facilitator and is the former healing justice director for Black Lives Matter. This program was both suggested by and realized with a member of our community advisory committee, who is both a psychologist and an artist-activist. And then . . .

“The show is not only modeling curatorial best practices; it’s modeling spectatorial best practices as well.” —Huey Copeland

HC: Go ahead, please!

JD: Sorry. There is just so much that could be shared. I think finally, for me, it was important to uplift the work of other colleagues in the field. I learned from others, so how could this project also be a platform to shine light on what’s already being done? We so often hear about museum colleagues making missteps, but less so about when they are successful. We organized a series that’s available online called “On Collaboration, Context, and Counterpoints: A Conversation Series on Museum Practice,” which features interviews with other museum and art professionals across the country who have been engaging in analogous projects and grappling with similar questions.

HC: This just underlines to me what’s so exciting about the show: It’s not only modeling curatorial best practices; it’s modeling spectatorial best practices as well. And I love that there are these spaces for thought and reflection: There’s basically an empty room where people can cool down or reflect or cry or rethink or whatever they need to do.

In the room where the Pindell painting is situated, there’s a bench. For me, that was completely necessary because of the power of the piece and my emotional response to it; but being able to sit down and focus also amplified my engagement with and appreciation for the work. What’s so fascinating is that these strategies that you’ve developed not only deepen the experience for the viewer in terms of the care with which the exhibition is organized, but they also deepen the engagement that you can have with the work

Paul Rucker, September 15, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, 2015, spruce, purfling, acrylic, 16 × 42 × 2". From the series “Soundless,” 2015.

JD: Thank you for that reflection. And that also circled back to the second part of your previous question, regarding the exhibition design itself. In terms of core values, my colleagues and I were thinking about visitor choice as well as about building in moments for psychological and physical rest.

One of the show’s three sections is titled “A Red Record,” after Ida B. Wells’s famous 1895 anti-lynching pamphlet. This is the section that displays more graphic material and explores its deployment as an artistic strategy to protest and raise awareness about anti-Black violence. The section is essentially contained in a gallery within the gallery, situated such that the sight lines are blocked, so you as the visitor may choose whether or not to look at that material.

There were also decisions I made about the volume of work presented. This is not meant to be a comprehensive exhibition. It’s not every single artwork that has engaged with this issue over the past 130 years; it’s intentionally selective. We considered the need for visual and psychological rest. How much could I really ask visitors to take up? Having that space creates the potential for you to process everything rather than just become overwhelmed and move past it.

The other space you referenced is a dedicated reflection room, designed in calming colors and outfitted for privacy. A guided meditation developed specifically for the exhibition is also available here. The reflection room provides a space for visitors to be with whatever is arising for them and an opportunity to transition from the emotional and psychological space of the exhibition to the world outside the museum walls.

HC: The show is now going to its second stop, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama—the Deep South. I wonder if you could talk about how these conversations were similar or different in terms of building audience and understanding in Chicagoland versus in Montgomery? To what extent did differing regional accents and divergent histories of racialization shift how the show unfolds in these two locations?

JD: Angie Dodson, who’s the director at the Montgomery Museum, and the curator, Jennifer Jankauskas, have been great partners. Even before agreeing to be a venue for the exhibition, they spoke with the mayor’s office and folks within the community, so that just tells you the kind of thought that went into that decision.

They’ll be building on some of the tools that we’ve developed and adjusting them for their context; they’re not looking to “A Site of Struggle” to do all the work but have created a context in which this exhibition makes sense within their larger program. For example, they have done a solo exhibition with Bethany Collins, who’s a Montgomery native, and a Lava Thomas exhibition that was curated by Bridget Cooks, and they just recently mounted an installation by Bayeté Ross Smith in the sculpture garden. The work is called Got the Power: Montgomery [2022], and it was done in collaboration with local residents, collecting community members’ songs and stories about Montgomery.

Content-wise, obviously, there’ll be different resonances. In the exhibition, there are photographs by Bob Crawford and Darryl Cowherd, who were photographers active in the Black Arts Movement here in Chicago, that focus on anti-integration marches that happened here in the ’60s. Those are going to resonate differently in Alabama than they would in Evanston and Chicago, and the same is true of works by Pindell or Paul Rucker or George Biddle that engage specifically with Alabama. There’s also the physical context of Montgomery, where Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church sits a few blocks away from the First White House of the Confederacy, but which is also home to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and other projects of the Equal Justice Initiative as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center. The history of the city is layered and complex.

HC: And that underlines the importance of real thought partners and institutional will to make these ventures successful in both locations. With that in mind, I wonder what you hope the legacy of the show will be, both in Evanston and Montgomery, and what its implications could be for contemporary curatorial practice?

JD: Given the speed of museum practice, there isn’t always built-in time for reflection. So I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation. In terms of curatorial practice, I hope it will be a model to think about the time required to engage with work on a deep level, the care required, and the rewards that can come when you have the buy-in from members of the communities with which our institutions interact and are a part.

I’m also thinking of a colleague who recently described it as this: Art doesn’t change things, but art changes people, and people change things. My hope in terms of legacy is that it will continue to be a resource for all of us who are working, in whatever format, to make a safer and more racially equitable society. Just to contribute to that fight, even in a modest way.

Huey Copeland, BFC Presidential Associate Professor of Modern Art and Black Study at the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributing editor of Artforum. Janet Dees is the Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, where she is also affiliated faculty in the department of art history, and an affiliate of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.