A new exhibit at Northwestern University is exploring America’s race relations dating back to the early 1800s.
“A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence” spotlights the country’s racism in a visual history lesson, showcasing the intersection of violence and art, while also encouraging reflection.
With more than 60 works across various mediums, the exhibit takes visitors through American history starting in the 1890s and ending in 2013 with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Black art has always been a part of how history has been communicated,” said Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University.
For instance, Harris says art was always critical to the anti-slavery movement.
“From a very early time, artists were engaged in the politics of making it known there was an injustice happening,” Harris said. “That was at a time when you had lower literacy rates. So people had to rely on visuals to reach larger audiences, because not everyone was reading the paper or picking up books.”
Janet Dees, curator of the exhibition, said it seeks to show the various strategies artists have used to engage with the topic.
“Whether it’s direct depiction of violence or using abstraction to avoid literal representation of violence — we want to showcase the rage,” Dees said.
The museum features numerous works that while graphic, engage in the politics of bringing injustices to the forefront of the conversation.
With two thirds of the featured artists being of color, and one third white, Dees says both viewpoints are imperative to telling a complete story. Harris agrees, noting Black history is also America’s history.
“You can see this history of solidarity of white artists in the 20s and 30s who use their artwork to support activists,” Dees said.
The timing of the exhibit is also fitting, organizers say.
“It’s very appropriate to me to have this exhibition opening in time for Black History Month,” Harris said. “Certainly, we can celebrate, but we also have to recognize what so many people have gone through but continue to go through. This exhibition really demonstrates that, but even more so demonstrates how artists have used their tools to reach larger audiences on these issues and to have us all engaged with them. We can take from their example, how we should each in our own lives — use what tools we have to understand these histories, positive and negative, and talk to our families and communities about them.”
“A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence” is on display at Northwestern University's Block Museum until July 10.