In August 2014, the curator and professor Karen Fiss and I began planning an exhibition on police violence in response to the murders of James Boyd in Albuquerque and Michael Brown in Ferguson. These two men were just the latest in a long list of men and women killed by law enforcement. They were victims of our endemic, toxic gun culture, and the militarization of the police. The exhibition “Necessary Force: Art in the Police State” addresses the systemic forces in our history and our society that continue to violate civil rights. The works in the exhibition addressed a range of issues, including police brutality, surveillance, and imprisonment, poverty, gun violence, racial profiling, as well as the power of collective protest and collective healing. Over the next thirteen months, we would text each other as more murders were recorded in grainy footage up until the show’s opening on September 11, 2015. Also, by that date, the Albuquerque police officers who shot and killed James Boyd, who was a mentally-ill, white homeless man, in March 2014 had received a hearing for second-degree murder. The accessibility of these images on the news, on phones and laptops, made our task as curators almost futile. How could an art show do anything worthwhile about this nightmare and how dare it even try? We included work by filmmakers, painters, sculptors, photographers, data artists, and graphic designers. We focused on these contemporary artists whose work was in direct dialogue with photographic documentation of police violence for two reasons: the University of New Mexico Art Museum’s stunning photography collection had a rich cache of photographs from the Civil Rights era and the centrality of violent imagery in our current visual culture. The exhibition emphasized the role of photography in shaping public opinion and how we remember our shared history. While many of the exhibiting artists had experienced racial profiling and even violence from law enforcement, it was through the media that all of them had learned of important incidents in this history from Birmingham to Ferguson.
Photography has always had the power to elicit outrage and inspire activism. In mounting “Necessary Force,” we wanted to bring objects together that would slow down viewing in order for the museum visitor to become conscious of their looking and how much images manipulate us. The twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media offer an endless onslaught of images that are beautiful and terrifying. The media inflames our emotions and then eventually desensitizes them through the very sensationalism of constantly seeing that which can never be unseen. We were fortunate to have photo and film work by such artists as Charles Moore, Danny Lyon, David Taylor, Nafis White, Hito Steyerl, the collective ASCO and Trevor Paglen that directly addressed, and in some cases even used, public surveillance in critiques of recorded violence and inhumane acts. Josh Begley’s Profiling. Is. (Locations of Concern and Information of Note) from 2014 and Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision each focuses on the pervasive role of surveillance, public and private, in every facet of our lives. Begley presents texts, maps, and photographs produced by the Demographics Unit of the New York Police Department in an installation that covers an entire wall. This conglomeration of information is from publicly-accessible files of surveillance of Muslim-owned businesses and gathering places right after 9/11. Paglen’s video is a montage of video recorded by a security drone in a gated, suburban community that reveals how normalized such surveillance of everyday life now is.
Nafis White’s installation of photographs entitled Phantom Negro Weapons (2014) gained the most responses from visitors during the four-month run of the exhibition. This installation was twenty-four color photographs in a grid where each numbered photo was a close-up of a lone object on a stark white background. The polished aesthetic of advertising photography draws one into the sharp edges of the cigarette pack, the high gloss of the cellphone, or the bright greens and reds of the Skittles package. The objects are pleasant and one immediately observes them as a consumer until one consults the binder on a stand in front of the images. The binder provides the key to the numbers next to each photograph; each object represents evidence from a wrongful death. The cellphone, the wallet, the headphones, the set of keys, each was mistaken for a gun held by a black man or woman resulting in their death. They were Phantom Negro Weapons conjured by long-held prejudices and widely-disseminated negative stereotypes that present people of color as threatening, dangerous—and armed.
One of the most rewarding aspects of curating this exhibition was our discussions with artists. Nafis White had also considered casting each of these phantom weapons into clay but we encouraged her to go with the directness of the photographs. We asked both Dread Scott and Hank Willis Thomas about work they felt would fit into the exhibition’s themes and they sent us a few options. In Amelia Falling, Thomas has printed on a framed mirror the iconic image by Spider Martin that captures the injured Amelia Boynton supported by two others. Police struck Boynton during the Pettis Bridge march. The mirror allowed anyone standing in front of the piece to become part of the scene. In the installation, Otabenga Jones and Associates’ We Did It For Love, (2015), an upside-down police car with audio of television shows and comedy acts about police violence, was directly in front of Amelia Falling which made its chaotic scene even more realistic. Any viewer saw themselves standing in between the three marchers and the police car. These museum-goers definitely experienced what Thomas often strives for in his use of historical imagery: “I think it’s important to figure out to what degree we can put ourselves in historic moments. I like the idea of implicating ourselves in the things that we’re looking at, not just gawking or gazing. Even for a brief second, we’re experiencing something of it. We are in a continuous dialogue with history and culture via photography.” Given the protests around the country in 2014 and 2015 (including my hometown of Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray), the presence of the police car in the gallery blurred those lines between news coverage and lived experience. In the installations of We Did It For Love, the artists have included police scanner audio from the unrest in 1965 Watts and news coverage of protests in 2014 Ferguson. After over a hundred days of national protests in cities and small towns in 2020, more Americans know this convergence of televised and lived actions of resistance more than ever.
This exhibition was one response to the outrage felt around the country. We believed that the educational programming was as important as the art. Embracing that this exhibition was on a university campus, we had a reading area filled with books on some of the infamous events that were the subject matter of the artwork, such as the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Amadou Diallo, and Bloody Sunday. Information on organizations concerning incarceration, homelessness, mental health, immigration, legal counseling, and discrimination was available at the front desk and a day-long community forum with round tables on these topics provided pathways to action for museum visitors. The artists in Necessary Force paid homage to the legacy of Danny Lyon’s and Charles Moore’s photos of resistance. The exhibition title itself reflected the urgency that these men and women felt to act through their art-making. As one student attendant noted in the first week after the opening, ‘There is a lot of death here and that’s a lot to sit with all day.’ Whether it was the police tape around the forty-one bullets police discharged to kill Diallo when he reached for his wallet in the doorway of his own apartment in Max King Cap’s We Own the Night (2001), Mel Chin’s live nightstick/microphone Night Rap (1993) or the brutal black-and-white images of protesters being tear-gassed, in chokeholds and abused by fire hoses, the representation of bodily harm was in every part of the gallery. Museum Educator Traci Quinn ensured that staff received training on how to handle the public regarding such intense and controversial content and staff were able to rotate more frequently. The contemporaneity of the show’s content brought a record number of visitors and visitor donations. It also made this exhibition very personal. Local teachers brought classes, sometimes more than once. Albuquerque residents who had never before stepped onto campus came to see art that spoke to their experiences and topics they cared deeply about.
The artist’s book Shot and Killed (2015) by Kara Tromp, who was a former UNM student, consisted of twenty-eight photographs the artist had taken of locations where police officers had killed someone between January 2010 and December 2014 in Albuquerque. Each photograph had a name and the date of the shooting as its title. Tromp eliminated humans to emphasize the permanent absence of each victim. Some of these locations were where the victim lived, others were just where they were when their fatal encounter with police occurred. The banality of an empty driveway or a street corner so clearly familiar made one recognize that such injustices occur all around us. Originally, the artist had planned to also wheatpaste posters of these photographs around the city, simultaneously displacing these crime scenes and memorializing the lives lost through reproduction. Dread Scott’s video recorded his performance of violence. The video documents his On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (2014). This performance of the artist being fire-hosed was in direct conversation with the images Moore took of Birmingham firefighters hosing well-dressed Black teenagers in 1963 during the very successful “Project C.” The curatorial pairing of the video next to that photograph at the start of the exhibition provided an important framework for the entire show. Scott’s struggle against the high-pressured stream emphasized the terror of transforming a tool municipalities use for good into a weapon to break the spirits and bones of young, non-violent activists. Bridging decades (and maybe centuries), Scott essentially animated the drenched youth huddled on the pavement in the photograph. As with all of the work in the exhibition, these juxtapositions made the viewer pause, do a double-take, and question just how far have we come with regards to equity and justice.
Necessary Force opened in a year that saw the first Black president of the United States commemorate the fiftieth anniversaries of numerous Civil Rights events. The contrast between these media opportunities and the weekly barrage of cellphone recordings of assaults and murders of young Black men and women by law enforcement was striking. One could literally watch one right after the other within one fifteen-minute news segment. This televised dissonance grounded the exhibition as it did so many of the artists in it. A distressed body is the focus of the photo by Lyon of National Guard soldiers arresting SNCC photographer Clifford Vaughs during a sit-in. Soldiers pull one arm, a leg, and his shirt while one of the seated protesters holds his other foot and while Vaughs supports himself with his other arm on the ground. His shirt is torn and his bareback exposed. The history and commerce of lynching photos inform this image: the terror, the mob, the torn clothing, the nudity, the onlookers. As Todd Gitlin described Lyon’s candid images of these confrontations, “Segregation deformed human life and the demonstrators meant to expose that deformation to the larger world and these photographs do that.”1
One cannot ignore that one SNCC photographer, Lyon, is documenting this assault of his fellow photographer, Vaughs, from just a few feet away. Did Lyon, who is white, fear he would be next? The power of their photographs to influence Northern audiences and legislators was feared by segregationists. These photographers were the eyes into the struggle for equality ripping the South apart. As Martin Berger writes in his book Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (2011), “the photographs forced countless whites to grapple with how their reticence to promote civil rights had relegated blacks in the South to violent and segregated lives.”2. Many, including John F. Kennedy himself, attributed the passage of the civil rights bills to these images of violence against protestors. The steady publication of these photographs in newspapers and such magazines as Life kept steady pressure on legislators, and other government officials, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists knew this. In a section from It Was Only An Indian (1994), Charlene Teters made a life-size, three-dimensional installation of a crime scene photograph that showed police standing over the dead body of Larry Caruse who was killed in a shootout with police in Gallup, New Mexico. This image was on the front page of the local newspaper and inflamed protesters.
The still from the video of Officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd was enough for me. It broke my heart that my children had seen the entire video many times. ‘It’s everywhere, mom— you can’t NOT see it,’ they told me. Photography enables anyone anywhere to bear witness. The history of visually recording violence against Black people who look like my family members is now a genre. Since May 25, 2020, many more people have witnessed that terror through a viral video and photographs. Mourning another Black life ended by a system that was built against it, they are now acting with the urgency that permeated Necessary Force.
2 Martin Berger. Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (2011) University of California: Los Angeles, 63
Image credit © Eve Caughey