San Francisco

Mildred Howard

Walter/McBean Gallery

As immune as we have become to the media’s grim recitation of violent events, the death of children still shocks and saddens most of us. Although almost fifteen years have passed since the summer day in 1976 when South African soldiers gunned down black children in Soweto, the memory of that event still has the power to move us—particularly as it has been invoked in Mildred Howard’s installation Ten Little Children Standing in a Line (one got shot, and then there were nine), 1991. Simultaneously a memorial and a plea for the end of racial violence, Howard’s piece is centered around a powerful constellation of related elements made from simple materials. With them, she transforms the chilly neutrality of the gallery/museum space into a meeting place—church, town hall, cemetery—charged with the emotions of love, grief, and anger; a place where the living talk and pray together, and the dead can be mourned and remembered.

The high walls of the gallery have been painted a warm, earthy tint of coppery tan. Covering much of the floor is a large rectangle of reddish sawdust, its expanse divided into three smaller areas by a cruciform path of gray gravel. The path’s shape suggests the traditional nave-transept configuration of a church, an association reiterated by the metaphorical congregation Howard has planted in the sawdust matrix; waist-high sticks of raw pine, too many to count, act as supports for hollow copper hands. Palms opened flat in a gesture of simultaneous supplication and demand, these hands—molds for rubber gloves—seem to address themselves both to the viewer and to a gleaming pattern on the far wall, of what appears to be thousands of copper rivets. On closer inspection, this dense rectangle of dots turns out to be composed of the spent casings of bullets.

In the adjacent space that runs along the main space like a side chapel, white lines define empty frames on the wall, each captioned with the description of a scene of death or violence taken from news photos from South Africa, dated and coded with wire-service symbols. At the end of the room, one such image, left uncaptioned, hangs on the wall. It’s the picture that ran in every paper in the world in 1976, of a boy and a girl stumbling in terror down a dirt road, weeping. The boy carries the body of a dead child; the girl’s hand is raised, as if begging someone to stop.

In this church, the face of God is composed from gleaming points of light reflecting from bullet casings. In this gravel and sawdust cemetery, the markers—made not of stone or marble, but of wood and copper—raise their hands toward heaven, in a gesture of supplication that echoes that of the little girl in the photograph. It also voices a demand of the many, living and dead, who want only to be accorded the right to speak the language of their choice, to vote, and to live freely as human beings.

Maria Porges