Darryl Cowherd, Stop White Police from Killing Us – St. Louis, MO, ca. 1966-67 (Photo: Block Museum)

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Artists have long confronted the anti-Black violence permeating U.S. history, asserting their voices through works that memorialize, protest, grieve and bear witness.

The exhibition “A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence,” now on view at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, traces the arc of artists’ responses to racial violence, from the anti-lynching movement in the 1890s through the emergence of Black Lives Matter. 

“What distinguishes A Site of Struggle from other exhibitions that may seem to be covering the same subject matter is its historical focus,” said Block curator Janet Dees. “I saw this project as an opportunity to understand the deep roots of racial violence in our country.”

Dees worked on the exhibition for five years, collaborating with national scholars, artists, museum professionals who know best practices for presenting difficult topics, as well as Northwestern faculty and students. She also worked with campus and community constituents, including a dedicated Evanston community advisory group. 

“Our museum is free and open to all to come and to see how this exhibition may be able to connect to and strengthen work already happening in our community,” Dees said.

According to Dino Robinson, an exhibition facilitator and founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, an organization that documents the Black experience on the North Shore, “This social event informs, it moves, it creates action, and Evanston’s community is not foreign to that. Specifically, in the Black community in Evanston, which dates back to 1850, there’s always been a movement of action and addressing social issues.” 

Emotional support

Given the brutality of the subject matter, the exhibition offers safeguards to ensure a respectful environment for everyone. Resources include signage warning of graphic content and controlled sightlines for these works, private seating areas, a guide for wellness and self care created with Black visitors in mind, and a reflection room for quiet contemplation. 

Dees organized the show into three distinct sections. The first, “Written on the Body,” features pieces that allude to anti-Black violence on the body in subtle ways, each hinting at lasting physical harm without using explicit representations of violence. 

The second, “A Red Record,” displays the most explicit collection and is named after Ida B. Wells’ 1895 anti-lynching pamphlet, which bears the same name. The works include graphic imagery of lynching, the practice that rose to prominence in the 1890s after white Americans sought to maintain racial hierarchies in a post-slavery world through public, brutal murders of Black people. For this reason, these works are placed in an interior room.

Elizabeth Catlett, Civil Rights Congress, 1949 (Photo: Block Museum)

“Abstraction and Affect” is the final section. The works here eschew literal portrayals of individuals in favor of conceptual stand-ins for the body, which are still intended to elicit strong emotion.  

Written on the Body

Anotherroadblockinourway, butifwegowegotogether (2020) is one in a series of paintings by David Antonio Cruz made as an homage to Black and Brown victims of transphobic and homophobic violence. It depicts three fashionably dressed queer Black individuals posing for a shot. Unlike other works in the gallery, Cruz uses bright and lively colors on his subjects, representations of queer fashion, and DIY photography in ways that conjure joy and personality. 

Yet, after careful viewing, the faces of the Black individuals seem unnaturally superimposed onto the stylish bodies. The background is in gray and white, and gradually you realize the trees behind the subjects resemble lynching trees. Although joyful, the painting feels purposefully off, because society did not grant these individuals the freedom of expression displayed in their outfits. 

A Red Record

Ida B. Wells, A Red Record, 1895 (Photo: Block Museum)


In Untitled (Two Necklines) from 1989, Lorna Simpson shares two photographs of the neckline of a Black woman in a white dress. The photo begins below the nose of the subject and ends before her breasts. In the space between the two frames is a list of words: “ring,” “surround,” “lasso,” “noose,” “cuffs,” “collar,” and “eye,” among others. Even without the words, the portion of the woman’s body in focus insinuates a sense of vulnerability. When placed on opposite sides of those words, though, the violent imagery of the institution of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the vulnerability of Black women in a specifically anti-Black society are immediately conjured. Here, Simpson links the lasting legacy of these words to Black susceptibility to threats of violence. 

Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock (1986) by Pat Ward Williams is a large blackboard covered in a journal entry written with chalk. In the center are three photographs of a lynched individual tied to a tree. The writing “questions the production and circulation of photographs of violence [and] their effects on Black spectators”: “How long has he been locked to that tree? Can you be Black and look at that image without fear? Life mag. published this photo … WHO took this picture? Couldn’t he just as easily let the man go? Did he take his camera home and bring back a blowtorch?” 

Williams’ landmark work, on loan from the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, is a searing critique on the sharing and reproduction of lynching photography, the folks who take the images and a deep curiosity about why the photographer chose to capture the moment artistically in lieu of freeing the man. The text draws our attention to the subconscious of a Black viewer who is often presented with casual images of horrific anti-Black violence in national media.

Isamu Noguchi’s Death (Lynched Figure) from 1934 is a contorted metal figure hanging from a rope. A 1930 photo of a lynched victim named George Hughes in Texas inspired the sculpture, an image circulated widely by progressive magazines like Labor Defender. The figure has no specific facial features, allowing us to view it as a stand-in for lynched victims throughout U.S. history. The color of the metal is reminiscent of Black skin, and the contortion shows the inhumanity of the perpetrators. The horror of this work makes the viewer sit with the literal “weight” of this tradition of anti-Black violence. 

Abstraction and Affect

Minority Majority (2012), a large work by Theaster Gates, is made up of red, white and mostly blue fire hoses lined up next to each other, offering an abstract representation of the American flag in what looks like worn denim. Gates crafted this piece using decommissioned fire hoses, alluding to the civil rights era of the 1960s, when law enforcement used high-pressure fire hoses to attack peaceful protesters. The piece’s name refers to predictions in the early 2000s that in the mid-21st century whites would become the minority in the United States, represented by a single white fire hose. The piece feels ironic. Although it softly alludes to this white American fear, the fire hoses are imbued with violence because of their inseparable history as tools of suppression against the “minority.”

Two sculptures by Paul Rucker portray the body of a violin carved into plywood. The details on the plywood pieces were created using the same tools: blowtorch, encaustic and acrylic. The similarities end there.

The first work, Jan 1, 1919-September 14, 1919, Red Summer, is crimson red, reminiscent of a bloody scene, while the second May 15, 1916, Waco, Texas, is equally haunting but has the look of a deeply burned tree. Both accomplish the same goal: suggesting how Black bodies were burned and bloodied through the various forms of physical violence. The title of each work points to specific incidents of racial violence. 

Kerry James Marshall’s Heirlooms and Accessories (2002) comprises three ink-jet print portraits that occupy an entire museum wall. Marshall places photographs of three white women, each peering out from a locket in separate, glittering frames. Yet the background of each canvas depicts a faint photograph of a brutal lynching – the locket is simply a way to focus on the white women standing in the eager crowd of spectators. 

All three photos are appropriated imagery from a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. The name of the piece serves a dual purpose: “accessory” can describe a piece of jewelry (the locket) and a legal term (accessory to murder). Marshall also wants viewers to understand the tradition of anti-Black violence as a valuable heirloom passed down from generation to generation.

Positive feedback

“Since the exhibition has opened, I’ve talked with several people who have spent time with the work and described how it resonated with them and their family history,” Dees said. “They said they appreciate the care we have taken. People can feel supported in their viewing of the exhibition.”

Courtney Baker, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside and an exhibition facilitator, told Dees in an online panel that she hopes that viewers will recognize the artists’ accomplishments.

“I hope what folks will see and detect in the exhibition isn’t just a chart of anti-Blackness and our destruction,” Baker said, “but of our survival, our endurance, of our continued activism and resistance to extraordinary anti-Blackness. … What you’ve collected and what the artists have produced is not just an archive of anti-Blackness but an archive of Black resistance and Black creative genius.”

A Site of Struggle will continue at the Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Northwestern University, through July 10, when it will go to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama.

For more information, click here.

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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  1. This is an excellent and important exhibit. It is educational and it touches you deeply. My congratulations to Dees and the entire Block museum staff as well as the community partners who participated in its creation.