On the Ground: Baltimore

On the Ground: Marcus Civin on changes in Baltimore in 2015

Still from Young Moose feat. Martina Lynch’s 2015 video No SunShine.

THE PAST SIX MONTHS IN BALTIMORE have been traumatic. Last April and May saw top-down violence from police and destruction by citizens amid simultaneously peaceful protest. Addressing the uprising that began after city police officers murdered Freddie Gray—an innocent twenty-five-year-old black man—Baltimore columnist D. Watkins wrote in the New York Times, “Some people might ask, ‘Why Baltimore?’ But the real question is, ‘Why did it take so long?’” Many, particularly those in East and West Baltimore, suffer from brutal policing, a school-to-prison pipeline, massive incarceration rates, crumbling housing stock, inadequate public transportation, and imbalanced urban redevelopment, to name a few. Although arts opportunities for people of color are gradually increasing here, change is slow. For instance, Baltimore has four public, Confederate monuments still standing guard. In late October, while a special city commission was beginning to review the history of the monuments and soliciting public opinion about their futures, Pablo Machioli and Owen Silverman Andrews led an artists’ action in front of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monument across from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Machioli made a large sculpture of a pregnant black woman and placed it in front of the monument in protest. After the Parks Department removed it, the artist displayed the sculpture in a common space at The Copy Cat, a popular artists’ live-work community. A vandal found the sculpture and covered it in violent, racist language.

Violence in Baltimore is relentless, the effect of systemic problems that have been interminably reiterated throughout the course of American history. Local artist and musician Paul Rucker’s installation “Rewind” (shown at the Creative Alliance last winter and again at the Baltimore Museum of Art later in the fall) included finely cut sculptures resembling unfinished or isolated parts of instruments each titled with the date and location of a murder. The roughly chest-sized plywood boxes, July 17, 2014, New York, New York, refers to the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner. These sculptures are graceful and dignified, but represent an absence too, like muscles without a skeleton, bereaved torsos perhaps, or sonorous cores uncoupled from sound or strings.

Baltimore rappers Young Moose and Martina Lynch’s song No SunShine, released last May, also points to violence passed down through American history, suggesting that the conflicts in Baltimore, although extreme, are not unique. In the music video for their song, Moose and Lynch rap at the site of Freddie Gray’s arrest. In front of a memorial to Gray painted by the artist Nether, Moose asks, “When we gonna wake up and realize it's real? They did the same thing to Rodney King and Emmett Till.”

Influential Baltimore activist and theater artist Sheila Gaskins likewise calls out that very repetition in American culture of black bodies murdered and abused. When I spoke with her for this piece, she—like Moose and Lynch—invoked Till. In 1955, Mississippi white supremacists lynched fourteen-year-old Till then dumped his body in a river because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket at his funeral. Gaskins wrote to me in an email: “For centuries, we have seen black bodies exposed, mutilated, hanging from trees, in museums, fetishized, on display, whipped, etc. During slavery days it was used as an example for other slaves to stay in line. Emmett Till’s mom left the casket open so everyone can see the ugly face of racism. However, years and years of exposing Black bodies has made it the norm. We no longer feel or can relate when we see Black bodies in turmoil. We are all traumatized, numb, powerless.”

Wickerham & Lomax, NSECUR, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 53 seconds.

Still, Gaskins is resolute, and a rekindled spirit of self-determination is similarly manifest, among other places, in the work of Baltimore artists who would like to visually intervene in the continuing cycle of cruelty she describes. Some of these artists enact rituals as a possible antidote to mutilation and psychological and physical violence. Take the recent digitally animated video by the Baltimore duo Wickerham & Lomax, NSECUR, (part of “Take Karaoke: A Proposition for Performance Art,” at Brown University’s Cohen Gallery in Providence until December 16th). The video seems to start amid the Baltimore Uprising, with the sound of screams and the image of burning buildings. A decapitated, muscled security guard stands in front of an inferno, cradling first Malcolm Lomax’s severed head, then Daniel Wickerham’s. Flowers spray from a hole in the security guard’s neck while both heads recite the same pensive, tabloid-like drama. Their language hovers between sense and nonsense; the drama driving their story seems to be personhood as lived in the gap between institutional recognition and financial security on one side, and resilient, honest self-presentation on the other. Yet, however cut-up the mode of expression or the anatomy of the video’s digital bodies, these bodies function. They insist on their own terms, becoming whole by performing.

Take, too, the work of performance artist Bobby English, Jr., which similarly interrogates violence against black bodies in solidarity with the Baltimore Uprising and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Staged over the past six months, English’s recent works incorporate and respond to the fear he sees in reactions to his tall, athletic, young, black male body. He appears nude or draped in cloth or raffia, adorned in blue and gold body paint, performing to be secure and vulnerable both in public space and within and without the confines of the intricate metal cages he builds. A key figure in Labbodies—a Baltimore performance incubator founded in January 2014 by Hoesy Corona and Ada Pinkston—English cites the Baltimore Uprising as an awakening.

Bobby English, Jr., Immure, 2015. Performance view, Terrault Contemporary, Baltimore, 2015. Bobby English, Jr. Photo: Clyde Johnson.

A sense of possibility undergirds the practices of many, like English, in this city, including the numerous artists who work for afterschool art and poetry programs, in community development, and with youth-empowerment groups. Photographers like Devin Allen and Nate Larson are inspiring young people to document their own world. (During the Baltimore Uprising earlier this year, both separately brought unflinching photographs—of police, protestors, the National Guard, and members of the press—to Time Magazine, CNN, and the world.)

In addition to teaching, to calling out and resisting, Baltimore artists seek to transcend violence by envisioning alternate realities. Where the persecution of black bodies is sustained and normalized, other mechanisms of succor emerge. Zoë Charlton, who splits her time between Baltimore and Washington, DC, considers a powerful survivalism. I held one of her collages in my hands in her studio at American University in DC, where she teaches. The collage shows a cutout photograph of a Pende woman kneeling, headless and holding a reclining child. She is set against a blank white ground, disassociated from history and culture. Twinkling blue-green-pink bubbles emanate from her ornate neckwear, as if they could nourish the child. Like so much of the work in and around Baltimore, Charlton’s cutout figure feels traumatized, eerie and mournful. It might also be a vehicle for a different knowledge—not what’s assumed to exist, but perhaps what could be.