"#ReHumanize, for Albert Woodfox" at UNO St. Claude Gallery

This exhibition review was originally published here by Pelican Bomb on September 4, 2015.

JACKIE SUMELL, KIJANA TASHIRI ASKARI/FOOTJOY CONTOUR SPIKELESS GOLF SHOE (ON SALE)/#H-54077 (DETAIL). TWO FRAMED WORKS ON PAPER. COURTESY THE ARTIST.

JACKIE SUMELL, KIJANA TASHIRI ASKARI/FOOTJOY CONTOUR SPIKELESS GOLF SHOE (ON SALE)/#H-54077 (DETAIL). TWO FRAMED WORKS ON PAPER. COURTESY THE ARTIST.

Dedicated to Albert Woodfox, the only unliberated member of the trio of black male political prisoners known as the Angola Three, “#ReHumanize, for Albert Woodfox” at the UNO St. Claude Gallery highlights the commodification of those imprisoned by the American penal system. With Jackie Sumell’s delicate drawings and hand-written profiles of former and current prisoners and Devin Reynolds’ jarring, advertisement-like paintings, the exhibition asks viewers “to imagine a world without prisons and to begin to dream of ways to better insure [sic] public safety and wellbeing without the need to simply dehumanize and punish.” “#ReHumanize” does not allow viewers to imagine or to dream; instead, it force feeds them a skewed perception of the “other” to elicit a superficial, empathetic response on the basis of shared humanity with those victimized by the Prison Industrial Complex.

To rehumanize means to make human again. The concept of humanity is a collection of hegemonic values that are projected onto us to regulate social behavior and to perpetuate the status quo; our ability to reflect it and the institutional response to our reflection of it largely depends on where we exist in the socioeconomic matrix. At the intersection of art and activism, those who are best able to reflect the human ideal are endowed with institutional visibility, allowed access to funding and a platform. Thus is born the career social practice artist. The title of the exhibition rightfully suggests that humanity can be given and revoked. However, “#ReHumanize” operates on the deluded beliefs that it is the role of the social practice artist to project humanity onto the “other” and that viewers of these projections can liberate said “other” with their gaze—a delusion many buy into because it is consistent with their savior complex. Reynolds and Sumell fail to realize that their projection of humanity onto prisoners actually prevents the abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex. As long as humanity is the basis for justice and compassion, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism—the forces that sustain the Prison Industrial Complex—will continue to thrive.

As an example of the ways in which the prison system dehumanizes, Reynolds and Sumell focus on the replacement of prisoners’ names with inmate numbers. Sumell couples pencil drawings of objects that have stock-identification numbers identical to prisoners’ Department of Corrections numbers with brief profiles of each prisoner. By placing the drawings where viewers might expect an image of the prisoner, Sumell argues that the replacement of names with numbers is evidence of prisoners’ dehumanization. Reynolds and Sumell prove that the concept of humanization is synonymous with colonization when stating in a large manifesto-like wall text that, by having their “real family names” taken away, prisoners are dehumanized. For most black, Latino, and Native-American prisoners, family names were forced upon them by the Europeans who colonized and/or enslaved their ancestors, replacing indigenous African and Indo-American names with European ones, followed by other forms of degradation intended to alienate them from their cultures of origin. The purpose of humanization is to organize and control.

As with the inextricably tied systems of global oppression, compartmentalization and competition power the human ideal. The privileged subject identifies the “other,” in the case of “#ReHumanize,” prisoners, and assesses similarities and differences. Sumell chooses not to detail the reasons why the profiled prisoners are or were incarcerated; she compartmentalizes because to acknowledge a history of crime would limit many viewers’ ability to perceive the prisoners’ humanity. But the prisoners’ crimes are as much an aspect of their humanity as their love for ice cream and walks in nature, which she does include. All so-called crime is a reflection of the human ideal—of hegemonic views regarding women, poor people, people of color, money, liberty, social acceptance, and respect. It is the projection of humanity that lands people in prison in the first place. Yet, Reynolds and Sumell propose that, to counteract the trauma of the prison experience, we must project humanity onto them again.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF PAINTINGS BY DEVIN REYNOLDS OUTSIDE OF UNO ST. CLAUDE GALLERY AS PART OF “#REHUMANIZE, FOR ALBERT WOODFOX.”

INSTALLATION VIEW OF PAINTINGS BY DEVIN REYNOLDS OUTSIDE OF UNO ST. CLAUDE GALLERY AS PART OF “#REHUMANIZE, FOR ALBERT WOODFOX.”

In efforts to rehumanize the people in the St. Roch neighborhood, Reynolds deconstructed the barrier between the community and the gallery by installing over two dozen small paintings on the chain-link, barb-wire fence that divides the gallery’s gravel parking lot and the sidewalk. With a mixture of sadness, bewilderment, and condescension, Reynolds told me that the day before the opening, he arrived at the gallery to find that a piece that reads “MiKKKael Jordan” with the image of a white-hooded Nike Jordan logo had been ripped out of place and hurled toward the building. Unaware that it is the same humanity he is projecting that leads people to want expensive tennis shoes, Reynolds mocks Jordan-buyers’ efforts to reflect the human ideal. Humanization is funny like that.

The strength of the human ideal lies in its transmittable and transmutable nature. The human ideal functions cyclically because our projection of humanity is a sign of our humanity. When we humanize someone, we train him or her to project. A country of humans is a country of complacent slaves deceived by crumbs of access and privilege to ignore the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, and imperialist nature of the humanity that they perpetuate. Once one has been humanized, humanization comes easy. The real work is acknowledging how we have all been traumatized by the projection of the human ideal and working to heal from that instead of continuing to project our trauma onto others by being human and humanizing.

Throughout United States history, the human ideal has been touted by self-proclaimed allies to bring institutional reform. Thomas Jefferson advocated for an end to American participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In a presidential message to Congress, Jefferson described the transatlantic slave trade as “those violations of human rights.” But not only did he continue to own and domestically trade enslaved Africans, he openly opposed private manumission and public emancipation and proposed legislation to outlaw free people of color. Forty-six years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though she had never been to the South, Stowe wrote about fictional black characters there to enlist the support of northern white women readers like her for the abolitionist movement. But when Harriet Jacobs, the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, wrote to Stowe asking that she write the preface to her soon-to-be-published slave narrative, Stowe declined because, she said, Jacobs’ inclusion of extramarital sex (a relationship that Jacobs explains in the text she had to protect herself from getting raped by her owner) was un-Christian and undignified.

Neither the transatlantic slave trade nor domestic slavery was abolished because of African people. And to be clear, only one was abolished at all. The United States abolished the transatlantic slave trade to sever economic ties with Britain, the largest international trader of enslaved Africans, and to accelerate the domestic slave trade. The United States reformed slavery (enter: the Prison Industrial Complex) because free slave labor in the South impeded the economic growth of the industrial North and threatened the stability of the Union. The transatlantic slave trade was abolished and slavery was reformed to protect humanity—that is, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. The revolution will not be led by humans.

Oppressed people are conditioned to seek evidence of our humanity in the gaze of those who best reflect the human ideal, and in doing so, we alienate ourselves from the people who are capable of seeing us for who we are and not for our potential to be more like them. From the Big House to the Ivory Tower to the six-by-nine-foot cell that Albert Woodfox has been kept in for 43 years, we’ve long known privilege is a joke, but it’s a narcotizing one if you’ve got it and an appealing one if you don’t. When we relinquish the need for validation, when we relinquish the desire to be perceived as human, that is when we unite. We seize control of Attica. We set fire to sugar plantations in Saint-Domingue. We slice throats in Virginia. We throw trashcans through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Our actions seem illogical to some, riotous. Unhuman, unreadable, we see each other.

Reynolds and Sumell command us to rehumanize. I refuse.

"what's going on" at Boyd | Satellite

This exhibition review was written for and published here on PelicanBomb.com on April 14, 2016.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF “WHAT’S GOING ON” AT BOYD | SATELLITE, NEW ORLEANS. PHOTO BY DALE GUNNOE.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF “WHAT’S GOING ON” AT BOYD | SATELLITE, NEW ORLEANS. PHOTO BY DALE GUNNOE.

I do not believe that white people are inherently incapable of facilitating conversations about the impact of white supremacy on black and brown lives. In fact, it is because I want white people to be having these conversations that I criticize them when their attempts are haphazard or merely self-congratulatory. Boyd | Satellite’s “What’s Going On” bills itself as “an homage to Black Lives Matter,” but its choices don’t reflect an understanding of the movement or its commitment to meaningful change.

To its credit, the exhibition includes some great pieces by individual artists. The late Jeffrey Cook’s sculpture Song of Silence, 1996, memorializes two friends lost to gun violence with upward-facing, cast-iron guns, the barrels of which have been wrapped in black twine and cloth—the tools of death preserved, stripped of their power, now rendered sacred objects. John Isiah Walton’s painting The Farm, 2016, depicts a white man on horseback looming over a black man picking cotton at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, highlighting the transtemporal exploitation of black labor from plantation to prison. These and other scenes of anti-black violence are literally reflected on the graphite surface of a work by Ron Bechet, which is etched with statistics of unemployment, income inequality, juvenile arrests, and housing insecurity, all relayed in second person, mapping these realities on to the viewer and the gallery.

But “What’s Going On” suffers from a lack of curatorial vision and intentionality that detracts from the potential power of these works. A faint reference to Marvin Gaye and the superficial dedication to black resistance in the exhibition’s title don’t provide enough context, making the pieces feel like disconnected jabs at sentimentality. An homage to Black Lives Matter is, by necessity, an argument for the value of black life, and the curation of the show should reflect this.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement was started and has largely been led by black women, black female artists have been excluded from “What’s Going On.” When asked if the work of any black women was being shown, gallery owner Ginette Bone responded, as though it had never crossed her mind, “Now that you mention it, no.” Local Black Lives Matter activists, many of whom are also women, hadn’t been contacted either.

Furthermore, Boyd | Satellite has centered white artists in the exhibition’s promotional materials and in the physical placement of their works in the exhibition. The flyer for the exhibition only shows gallery owner Blake Boyd’s photograph Swat, 2008, and, in the reminder email for the opening, only Ti-Rock Moore’s works are distinguishable. Moore’s pieces are also the largest in the show: the three eight-by-twelve-foot panels of Possession, 2014; her now-infamous installation Angelitos Negros, 2015; and the Jeff Koons-esque Cracka Please, 2015, a collaboration with the artist Cypher. Only one black artist, photographer L. Kasimu Harris, has more than one piece in the show.

By not dedicating enough space and attention to the works of the black artists, the exhibition undermines the ethos of Black Lives Matter and devalues the works of the black artists that are included, while placing the white artists and gallery owners on a pedestal for their choice to take a stand. Just because a gallery on Julia Street is highlighting an important subject doesn’t mean that the exhibition actually addresses the issues at hand. I’m not convinced that black lives matter to Boyd | Satellite beyond the visibility and publicity that their pain brings to the gallery.

Ori: On Following Something that Doesn't Exist Outside of Me

"The head carries the body. Use yours." - Ifa text

An Ifa Ibori, a symbol of an individual's personhood used to venerate their/his/her Ori (personal diety - destiny and essence) that, unsurprisingly, is for sale at a British auction house. 

An Ifa Ibori, a symbol of an individual's personhood used to venerate their/his/her Ori (personal diety - destiny and essence) that, unsurprisingly, is for sale at a British auction house. 

Two years ago, my cousin shot herself in the head in the driver seat of her white toyota corrolla. Earlier that morning, my father later told me, she'd asked her mother, my aunt Debbie, to talk, but Aunt Debbie was running late to the meeting for field service and said they could talk when she got home. Having spent a few hours going door-to-door to share "the good news of the kingdom," she returned, parking next to and obliviously walking past the car where her daughter's lifeless body lay slumped over the console. 

When Aunt Debbie couldn't find Christian in the house, she waited and called, called and waited. She trotted back out to her car with a slight, post-hip surgery limp, whether to meet with the afternoon service group or to continue her search I don't know, and that's when she saw.  

I'd last seen Christian at our cousin Erica's wedding in L.A. We sat outside the reception hall as she regaled 16-year old me with tales of her sexual exploits, how she'd had a threesome with two guys, how she'd been fingered in a New York City cab on a trip to Bethel. I asked her if she would ever confess to the elders. She responded with an emphatic "hell no" and then asked me. "I don't know. Maybe." 

It's weird seeing pictures of yourself in a funeral program. A five-year old flower girl at her oldest sister's wedding standing in between her cousin whose funeral it is and their grandmother who refuses to say the word "suicide." She prefers to refer to Christian's manera de morir as "a thing like that," but at least she's talking to me. Mama Helen's 95. I won't see her again before she dies unless someone else dies first. Update: Monica died, but I was in Los Angeles for a conference and couldn't make it to the funeral in Mobile.

I emailed my dad a few weeks ago. We hadn't spoken in a month, which, for us, isn't that long of a period, but I know it's important to my parents to know my whereabouts. I'm working on being more compassionate. "I'm Alive" I typed in the subject line. He replied, "It's good to know that you are physically alive." The subtext being that I'm spiritually dead. 

The Apostle Paul wrote to the congregation at Corinth that "Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and the head of Christ is God." 

Daddy says that my independence is my god.  I pray regularly.