African-American Artists Comment on Local Violence
By Doug MacCash, NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE
Nationally known artist Willie Birch is a busy guy. He’s helping to put the finishing touches on the catalog for his retrospective exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in January. He’s a finalist to design a monument commemorating the African Burial Ground in New York City, and he’s creating new paintings for shows in New York, North Carolina and New Orleans. But he’s never too busy to speak out, when he feels it’s necessary.
When a young black man was gunned down just yards away from Birch’s North Villere Street home, he felt the need to take a stand against the epidemic of urban bloodshed, so familiar in New Orleans. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Birch, 61, “and I grew up in a bad neighborhood — in the Magnolia project. I saw people shot right at my feet. One-third of the males I grew up with were dead by the time I was 17, 18 years old.”
Birch’s outrage was the origin of the group exhibit “What’s Going On, Visual Artists Address Black on Black Violence,” now on display at the Ashe’ Cultural Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. He invited all interested African-American artists to participate, eventually receiving 25 paintings, photos and sculptures, which he chose to display at the African-American-oriented Ashe’ Center.
By choosing Ashe’, Birch says he hoped to break down the barrier many African-Americans feel when approaching an art gallery. He hoped young artists would feel free to enter their work in the community-based exhibit and that the show would reach a more general audience.
“I wanted to guarantee that these young artists, who are telling me they don’t have any place to show, would participate,” Birch said. “I’m creating the platform, a space on a wall. I’m saying, ‘It’s up to you to take advantage of it.’ ”
Ironically, it wasn’t 25 young unheard-of artists who took Birch’s offer. The show is dominated by several of the Crescent City’s best-known African-American artists, from John Scott to Cely Pedescleaux to Roy Ferdinand. Birch admits that he’s a bit disappointed that the show didn’t reveal a new generation of impassioned black artists, but he can take solace in the overall high quality of the work he received. Good intentions don’t communicate nearly as well as good art anyway.
Last Saturday’s opening reception was a catharsis. Most of the artists were eager to discuss their work, and the need to end street violence.
— Kimberly Dummon’s contribution, titled “Level Playing Field,” is a chessboard made of alphabet blocks, topped with chess pieces made of spools of thread, toy cars and baby dolls. The blocks are uneven. “A lot of African-Americans talk about the United States not being a level playing field,” she said. “All the pawns in my piece are babies, because they feel the brunt of the situation.”
— Xavier professor Ron Bechet’s painting titled, “Which Way Out,” is a typical New Orleans city-scape, featuring rows of cottages and shotgun houses. The painting is framed in a windowlike shadowbox. The glass pane of the box is coated with sooty black hand prints, which somewhat obscure the scene.
“My piece is about our dilemma in New Orleans,” Bechet said. “The street scene is Hope Street in the 7th Ward — I thought that was a nice irony. We’re in this shadowbox and we don’t know how to get out. The fingerprints are remnants of the people who couldn’t escape.”
— Folk artist Rogers L. Conner’s “Crime Stoppers” is a cartoon-like scene of street violence with a simple message. “There’s a drug deal going on,” Conner said. “The witness in the window sees and hears the crime and says, ‘I’m going to call the cops.’ If more people would get involved it would prevent a lot of crime.”
— Claire F. Burnett, a former New Orleans schoolteacher, created “Falling Through the Cracks,” a charming folk art relief sculpture with scores of children’s faces made from pistachio shells. Despite the whimsical presentation the pro-study theme is dour.
“This is about the educational system,” Burnett said. “A lot of children are falling through the cracks. They can’t get a job, because they can’t read. I’ve seen three kids at McDonald’s trying to fill out an application.”
— Well-known sculptor Jeffrey Cook’s “Abandoned Gun Rack” is a wooden display shelf, with a small wooden angel kneeling where guns once rested. The entire sculpture is coated with a layer of collaged children’s drawings — made by Cook’s Central City grade-school students in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Artists and a Sense of Place project. “It’s interesting to see what kids draw,” Cook said. “They’re always drawing what happens in their community. I say ‘What’s that?’ They say, ‘a gun.’ ”
— Nat Williams’ “Black on Black” is an expressionist painting depicting a child dying in a passerby’s arms. The good Samaritan wears a printed T-shirt with a religious theme. “In Order for us to stop the violence, we need one cross and three nails,” Williams said. “We’ve tried everything else, why not Christ.”
— Impressionist Charles Simms says he doesn’t create many negative images, preferring to dwell on the positive aspects of New Orleans life. Yet his painting of family members standing behind crisscrossing crime scene tape is one of the most poignant, in part, because the composition puts the viewer in the position of the victim.
“This is a scene that can be seen on any street corner, any day in New Orleans,” Simms said.
No, a modest show such as “What’s Going On” isn’t going to solve the problem of black-on-black violence — not by itself. But imagine if more of the creative world followed suit. Imagine if more movies, TV shows and popular musicians didn’t celebrate violence. It’s true that many of the artists in “What’s Going On” protest crime by depicting it, but there’s nothing alluring in their depictions. There are no sexy villains, gun-wielding heroes or romantically martyred victims; just ordinary people and tragic circumstances. The artists of “What’s Going On” have managed to demonstrate their passion for the subject of violent crime, without glorifying it.
Birch plans a come-one-come-all marching parade protesting violence Aug. 7 at 11 a.m. The parade will begin at the Ashe’ Center, ending at Congo Square. Artists and other marchers are encouraged to wear costumes.
“Creativity is always the other side of destructiveness,” Birch said.