In one picture, a life-size paper cutout photograph of a woman hangs by a rope from a tall tree, her feet touching the top of a wall. In another, a different life-size photo effigy, this one featuring a man, hangs from Sather Gate on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley.
More than an attractive landmark, Sather Gate is adjacent to Sproul Plaza, a free speech gathering place where students have—over six decades—protested about civil rights and free speech (in the 1960s) to racial violence (in 2014). So when photographs of lynching victims showed up this past Saturday on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?
They seem to have learned some lessons about the power of photography to influence people’s thinking and shape their experiences profoundly.
None of those questions are easy to answer, but we do know that on Monday, a group that identifies itself as “queer and POC [people of color]” took responsibility for these works of activism, which coincided with a loosely affiliated group of demonstrations called a National Day of Resistance. In their statement, the artists write “the images of historical lynchings” “reference faultlines of hatred and persecution.” By way of explanation, they say they used the “deeply unsettling” hanging figures exactly because they are evidence of “systemic racism” and “distasteful crimes.” They issued an apology “solely and profusely” to black Americans and claim their actions were not “intended as an act of racism.”
But do their actions qualify as art?
Unequivocally, yes. These works draw on several artistic traditions. From European Dada art of the early 20th century, the artists draw on the collage aesthetics of pioneers, such as Hanna Hoch and John Heartfield, to place an image in an unfamiliar context and give it a new, politically charged meaning. From Pop artists, like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, the artists take the symbol of the lynched body and attempt to load it with different ideas. From Conceptual artists, including Carrie Mae Weems and Martha Rosler, they seem to have learned some lessons about the power of photography to influence people’s thinking and shape their experiences profoundly.
Clearly, the artists are familiar with Without Sanctuary. Amassed by James Allen and John Littlefield, Without Sanctuary began as a small collection of lynching photographs and turned into a full-scale photographic archive. An exhibition of their photos, postcards, and other materials toured the United States for years, and an eponymous book was published in 2000. In the not-so-distant past, postcards of lynchings—complete with hand-drawn arrows to point out the writer’s position in the lynch mob and handwritten sentiments to family and friends—were sent through the American postal system. Having been circulated fairly broadly over the past 15 years, this type of photographic imagery is rather easy to find. And it remains difficult for many of us to look at.
In these photos, we see evidence of what might be called domestic terrorism or human rights abuses. Laura Nelson, lynched in Okemah, Oklahoma, on May 25, 1911, is photograph No. 33 on the accompanying website for Without Sanctuary. Garfield Burley and Curtis Brown were lynched in Newbern, Tennessee, on October 8, 1902, and they appear in photograph No. 48. Nelson, Burley, and Brown have about 90 companions on the site, the majority are male, but they are not exclusively African-American.
Are these representations and underlying meanings the basis of good art? Like the life-size effigies that provocatively dangled from strategic spots around the Berkeley campus until snatched down—lest they offend—the jury is hung.