A provocative exhibition, Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham, opened at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland at the tail end of last month. The influence of a sequence of events located in and around the largest city in Alabama is still resonant in works largely drawn from the past decade and largely created by African American artists. Two rooms of works on display, as well as one interactive space, provide a perspective on the city and the civil rights movement from artists whose experience of Birmingham has been mediated by time and media.
Network of Mutuality is a multimedia exhibition, and the sounds of the civil rights movement confront the visitor before he or she can spy a single work. Audio from Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry’s “Within Our Gates” (2008), consisting of songs and chants accompanying three-channel video projected flat on the wall, filters throughout the space. Other audio works are accompanied by speakers, preventing any confusing noise pollution from detracting from the space.
Located in the center of the main room, tucked between a freestanding wall and pillar and facing away from the entrance, is Michael Paul Britto’s “Afrikan Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic)” (2010), a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood crafted out of fabric resembling traditional kente cloth. From the angle I approached the suit and mannequin were hidden, and I didn’t encounter it until I was on my way out of the exhibit. Both the Klan suit and the cloth design are immediately recognizable, and the juxtaposition struck me as amusing more than anything else.
Between the two display rooms of the exhibit are a pair of interactive spaces, one a work appearing on the gallery’s checklist and the other not. Emily Wright’s “I’m no racist but…” (2013) invites visitors to apply an ink stamp to a sheet of paper clothespinned to the wall. Prejudiced visitors are asked to apply one stamp – a selection is available, with phrases such as “He’s an articulate black guy” and “We need to take back the country for real Americans” – while non-prejudiced visitors are asked to apply two. Do you apply one stamp, believing yourself an enlightened individual, or do you apply two because you recognize your own failings?
Wright’s work begs introspection, as does the space opposite, a three-sided room covered in chalkboard paint. Chalk is available to write answers to a prompt posted on the wall, to imagine how your life would be different if you’d born to a different community or with a different identity. As fitting an exhibit on a college campus (or really, anywhere in the world), introspective answers are interspersed with predictable incidents of casual racism, themselves perhaps a reflection of the fact that we’re still nowhere near a post-racial society in the United States.
For the most part, the exhibit, curated by Audra Buck-Coleman and Ruth Lozner, achieves its goals, to “raise awareness and dialogue about the state of race and race relations today [and] leverage the distinct power of art and design as a means to provoke remembrance, reflection, reconsideration, and response.” The exhibition catalog also speaks to responsibility of the privileged, not just those in the minority, to speak out against injustice. It’s an idea that’s presented as forward-thinking, rather than common knowledge. An underlying subtext seems to be that the university itself and its members operate in a privileged position regardless of individual race/gender/class/etc. That’s a point that gets made with far less regularity, and it would be heartening to see that foregrounded more in the exhibit alongside powerful works of racism and racial identity in contemporary America.