History, Art, and Black Life in the United States

“Open Season,” Wesley Clark (photo credit: Nathan H. Dize)

On September 6, 2018, Amber Guyger killed Botham Shem Jean after breaking into his apartment, allegedly mistaking it for her own. She shot the unarmed 26-year-old Jean in the chest. Since Jean’s death, the media has sought to humanize his killer and vilify Jean. Rather than granting credibility to Jean, who was peacefully sleeping in his apartment, the Dallas police department has sided with Guyger’s story of mistaken-apartment-syndrome. All of these details accumulate, as they have in the cases of other innocent, unarmed Black people killed at the hands of the police, constituting a dolorous pattern of present-day African American life.

The same day that Botham Shem Jean was killed, artist Wesley Clark spoke at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University to a group of students, faculty, and community members at the opening of his latest exhibit, “The Prophet’s Library, Vol. II.” The result of years of work focusing on Black life in the United States, this show presents a collection of pieces meant to serve as a set of conversations, engaging with ideas and realities facing the Fisk community as a whole. Jamaal Sheats, Director and Curator of the Fisk Galleries, said in a phone interview that after a “student came to the gallery shaking, terrified about the experiences of other men that look like him” he was motivated to find an artist whose work responded to the needs of the student body as well as contributing beauty to the gallery space. Fitting with the larger mission of the Fisk Galleries, which has been accumulating works of art since the late nineteenth century as a teaching collection. In email correspondence with Assistant Director and Curator Nikoo Paydar, she describes the Fisk Gallery as a “site for these powerful conversations” where art can aesthetically mediate the painful lived experiences of students and visitors.

In an intimate set of installations and interactive works of art, including word searches, crosswords, and building blocks, “The Prophet’s Library, Vol II” is a reflection on Black life and mourning. In order to provide an overview of the exhibit, I will focus on three particular pieces as they contribute to our understanding of the historical patterns and narratives of Black life in the United States. Wesley Clark is a “weaver” in the sense that Carl Van Vechten evokes in The Tattooed Countess (1924): “That was the complexity of life. It was a series of patterns. One weaver wove one way, another a quite different way. And no possibility of change. You patronized one weaver or another and you had to stick by your choice. He understood now. It was all quite clear to him.” In his exhibition, Clark attends to the complexity of Black life, calling on spectators to reinterpret and challenge the cycle of patterns and narratives that objectify and profit from the death of African Americans.

“Black Don’t Crack, but it Sho Catch Hell”

The largest work in the exhibit, “Black Don’t Crack, but it Sho Catch Hell” stands at almost 8 feet tall and represents, as Clark says, the culmination of his Target Series. The piece evokes various moments in Black history spanning the seventeenth to the twenty-first century and the cumulative weathering of Black life over time. Presented in the form of black hieroglyphs, whether etched, spray painted, or bound together with chains, Clark creates an arc of U.S. legal history from slavery with visual and material elements. The iron that binds the piece together recalls the shackles of enslavement and its impact on the present. The spray-painted elements that read “CKA” evoke the “Casual Killing Act” in Virginia slave codes, “BTSN” recalls the Batson v. Kentucky case that challenged the formation of all-white juries, and “WOD” represents the so-called “War on Drugs” of the late twentieth century that resulted in the criminalization of Black people rather than the eradication of the harmful effects of drugs.

In the center of “Black Don’t Crack” Clark engraved a massive target which, given the historical nature of the piece, conveys the notion that Black life has always been a target of violence. Despite the visceral imagery of the piece, the evident scars and cracks in the wood, the nuance in the shades of matte and glossy black, the work still stands. During his artist talk, Clark acknowledged that the subject matter of the work seems grim, however, he interprets the work as a site of knowledge, an understanding of the past that he, the artist himself, had to learn. Citing works like Joy DeGruy Leary’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (2005), Clark emphasizes the importance of art that visually represents and instructs viewers as a means of creating empathy and building community.

“Open Season,” the Target Series cont.

When I visited the gallery the day before the official opening of the exhibit, Clark and the museum curators were discussing the placement of one of the works, entitled “Open Season.” The question was how the gallery should mount a series of ninety engraved cubes, whether or not to affix them to a wall or to arrange them on a table for participants and viewers to interact with the piece. That day and the following day during his artist talk, Clark shared his discomfort with viewers touching, arranging, and rearranging the cubes because they were each meant to represent a “miniature memorial” for each unarmed Black person killed at the hands of the police since George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Samford, Florida, in 2012. For Clark, the collection of cubes forms a memorial “quilted tapestry.” To manipulate the order and structure of that tapestry, the fabric of mourning, would violate of the memory of those who have passed.

In the corners of the individual cubes, Clark has etched the name, birth date, death date, and the location where each person was killed. Rather than insisting on the chronology of the deaths, Clark arranged the individual blocks of “Open Season” like the blocks of a colorful quilt, focusing on the beauty of the memorials. The only block that has a specific location is the one commemorating Trayvon Martin, located in the bottom righthand corner, to remember that Martin was the person whose death represents for Clark the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives.

The Case for Reparations in “Only What’s Owed”

Many of the pieces in “The Prophet’s Library, Vol. II” have a certain interactivity to them, where a participatory element equips viewers to better understand the connections Clark makes in his work. Unlike “Open Season,” “Only What’s Owed” is a work of art that invites onlookers to play with the art, to try to solve the puzzle therein. “Only What’s Owed” is set up as an antique crossword puzzle in two parts: the first is the board itself, the second is the key to its immediate right. The idea of the crossword recalls Ta-Nehisi Coates’ celebrated 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” because the answer to every clue on the key is “reparations.” Although the person attempting to solve the puzzle might not know it at the beginning they will learn about the legal precedents that make up Clark’s case for reparations. Also, as the light shifts when the participant approaches the crossword board, viewers will notice a laser cut scene of a Jim Crow-era lynch mob where, instead of a person hanging from the tree, there is another downward column.

In this last work Clark recalls Claudia Rankine’s poetic and artistic gesture in Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) because Clark, like Rankine, engages with the spectacle of whiteness. A whiteness that commodifies colonial antiques, a whiteness that displays Black death for white edification. A whiteness that defers and denies an undeniable precedent for reparations and restorative justice towards Black people. These are the forces of whiteness with which Clark plays, undoing them through a sense of history. Some find the means to cope amongst physical and virtual communities, others take to the page, writing poetry, prose, and drama, but for multimedia artist Wesley Clark visual and interactive art is the way he attends to the dead.

*The Prophet’s Diary, Vol. II” is now on display at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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Nathan Dize

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and revolutionary poetics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nathan is the editor of the digital history project A Colony in Crisis and co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation.” Follow him on Twitter @NathanHDize.