Outrage and Controversy at NY Museum Art Show Depicting Police Brutality
"Taxpayer dollars certainly should not fund any art that promotes hate, and that's certainly what [Dread Scott's, Blue Wall of Violence] does." Patrick Lynch, president, NYC Patrolmen's Benevolent Association
My exhibition Dread Scott: Welcome to America opened on February 28 at MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Disporan Art) in Brooklyn, NY. It is a survey of my art spanning almost two decades. The show was instantly vilified in the NY Daily News and the police union called for the city and state to defund the museum because of one of the works. Specifically, they denounced "The Blue Wall of Violence." In its Feb. 29 article bearing the headline "Finest: Dis Art is the Worst!" the News wrote: "A cop-bashing art exhibit at a taxpayer-funded museum in Brooklyn portrays the city's Finest as trigger-happy racists who have put bull's-eyes on the backs of black New Yorkers."
"The Blue Wall of Violence" is a 1999 installation that addresses police brutality. It focuses on the object that the police "mistook" for a dangerous weapon when they shot an unarmed person. The artwork consists of several elements: On the wall are six actual FBI silhouette targets which police use for shooting practice. Protruding from each of these is a cast of an arm. In each hand is an object -- wallet, house keys, 3 Musketeers bar, squeegee, etc. Above each target is a date. In front of this is a coffin and in front of the coffin are three police batons which are moved by motors so that they each strike the casket every 10 seconds with a loud penetrating bang. The dates correspond to a day when an actual person was shot by the police and the objects are what they were holding when shot (For example, on February 4, 1999 Amadou Dialo was shot 41 times while holding his wallet, on Sept 24, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Hayward Jr. was killed while holding a brightly colored oversized water pistol ...)
In many of my artworks, I use common objects that have a particular resonance from everyday life. In this case, targets, coffins and billy clubs are combined and people can see something new about them. In another work in the exhibit I have a Black baby doll floating in an aquarium and place a trumpet at the bottom -- all in reference to Hurricane Katrina. My works tend to have a horrible beauty and that tension is what I think contributes to their power.
This work stylizes these six targets and a coffin to point to the tip of a much larger iceberg. When I made the piece in at the end of the 90s the police and law enforcement had killed over 2,000 people that decade. And this statistic has rapidly increased in the past 8 years.
The news story that has developed has focused on one artwork. What is overshadowed in all of this is that "The Blue Wall of Violence" is part of a larger exhibition that explores many themes. It includes work about people left to suffer and die in Katrina, people killed by the U.S. war on Afghanistan, brutality against Muslims while in detention after 9-11 and photographs and audio interviews with some of the 2.4 million prisoners in the U.S.
Police brutality in the U.S. is part of this larger picture. In considering what work would be included in the exhibition, I thought about what would enable my audience to think about some particular theme or subject addressed by individual works as well as to be able to muse about broader relationships. For example what is the relation between a Guinean immigrant being drawn to America and later killed by the police in the doorway to his Bronx apartment and children killed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan?
A couple of people who visited the exhibit recently noted that I say, "I make revolutionary art to propel history forward" and wanted to know more about what I meant by that. The conversation touched on a range of things, but one thing I pointed out was that the world is a horror for billions of people. Many of the works in this exhibit highlight what this means for Black people and reveal how this society literally kills us.
I want my audience to engage the misery that this system causes for so many as well as dream about how it could be radically different. One work, "Imagine a World Without America" encourages the viewer to do just that. The title is from Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, U.S.A, who has inspired my thinking and influenced my work for 20 years. We need systemic change from bottom to top and I would like my art to contribute to society getting beyond a world where a tiny handful controls the great wealth and knowledge that humanity as a whole has created.
But many of these broader themes have been lost in how the discourse around this exhibit has been framed. That said, it is important to look at this controversy in its own right. In my opinion, the police response has done nothing but affirm the themes in the show. What kind of society do you have when cops not only have unrestrained power to shoot unarmed people but then demand that artists and museums that shine the light on these crimes be punished? And in case anyone has any illusions that this is "just" about arts funding, it is revealing to learn how the police speak about this when they think that they are "off the record." Below are some of the responses posted on policelink.com -- a social networking site for police across the country.
NYPDLieutenant: (Retired from the NYPD in 2004 as a lieutenant) "The Brooklyn "Museum" should be blown off the face of the earth. It's the most liberal, anti-American, racist spot in the entire city."
KD7LBP: (Deputy Sheriff: Oregon City, OR) "Judging from his work I would say that he probably should go back to his country of origin since he doesnt like living in the United States. I bet if he tried to "express" his freedom there he would find out just how "oppressive" the government can really be."
tony6d2: (Assistant Chief Firearms Training Officer/Armor in FL) "Ha! Figures this shit would be in Brooklyn! I've always hated fucking Brooklyn! That museum would have been burnt down to the ground in Howard Beach, Queens and then afterwards everybody would have met up at the local Trattoria for Capicolla and Canolis! ... This is why people end up getting chased into the Belt Parkway by other people with baseball bats!"
FYI, tony62d2's Belt Parkway comment refers to the 1986 racist bat-wielding mob who screamed "get the nigger" as they chased Michael Griffith onto a busy highway where he was struck by a car and killed.
I also received the following e-mail: "You are nothing but a racist piece of human garbage, I really hope you drop dead: God forgive that you would ever need a police officer for any type of crime that would happen to you, maybe we will get lucky and some piece of shit black man will shoot you. go to HELL ASSHOLE"
I hope people think about what it means to have people like this, armed and with the authority of the State, confronting Black people holding house keys, wallets or candy bars. What does it mean when they are sent to New Orleans? What does it mean when they arrest Arabs after 9/11? What does it mean when they fly "missions" above villages in Afghanistan or Iraq? These are questions I think about when I make art. And I want people to question whether any basic change for the better can come as long as you have this system in place.
The controversy has been covered on all local TV news stations, on the radio, on blogs and has received very positive Spanish language coverage on prominent websites in Chile, Yahoo Mexico and elsewhere. And people who have actually seen the show have been very enthusiastic.
I'm very proud of Dread Scott: Welcome to America. It is a powerful and apparently more thought-provoking exhibition than either I or the museum expected. MoCADA and its supporters have taken a courageous stand and are not backing down in the face of the very real threats. If you are in the area, I hope you will come see the exhibit. It is on view until June 1. I will be giving an artist talk at the Museum this Thursday March 13. And if you are outside the NY area, much of the work is available to view on my website.