This exhibition is about reactions to friction and aggression, the responses they evoke, and how the attention paid to voices of dissent swings between contempt and celebration. Words like “black,” “white,” “nigger,” “nazi,” carry different weight based on whose pen they come from, and can all be liberating and torturing at once. There rises, then, the need to find ways to level the field, or at least get a chance to play. The idea that violence is provoked assumes a fair playing field in a world full of naturalized violence. However, the field is very uneven. Sympathetic language does not exempt one from being an aggressor just as seemingly combative language does not exempt one from being an ally.
The role of language makes light of trauma. The trauma then gets hidden or normalized and stored somewhere like in: Buchanan’s houses made of scraps that are not always strong enough to keep the contents safe – one has already been taken away; Vaughn’s long row of paper trays housing reports of equal opportunity employment in America and exit strategies; Kurian’s cabinet doors filled with water and wine glasses that omit a low, constant rumble; Robbins’ body walking endlessly, taking the same steps, never flinching to their surroundings; Farah’s profile that is an image of both growing equality and political transgression; Black’s tower of text that stands next to a shredder, offering new modes of use for something once scrapped; Williams’ invented memories, forever captured in the darkness of a Xeroxed page, both anonymous and familiar; this press release.
Revolutions can come in small gestures and whispers, and are just as powerful as a bullhorn. And when you put out a call to respond, you need to respond too. Having been the recipient of constant aggression, one realizes the need to turn the friction around by inserting new norms, new forms of inclusivity, in less overt ways, and to let friction take its place alongside resilience. This subversion does not equate weakness. It’s a tactic with clear objectives and end states.
And it’s exhausting.
In Hilton Als’ essay GWTW (2000), he writes a response to an editor’s call for him to speak on a collection of American lynching photography:
Now I know from experience that the world has been limited for me by people who see me as a nigger, very much in the way the dead eyes and flashbulb smiles in these photographs say: See what we do to niggers! They are the fear and hatred in ourselves, murdered! Killed! All of this painful and America. Language makes it trite, somehow. I will never write from this niggerish point of view again. This is my farewell. I mean to be courtly and grand. No gold watch necessary, as I bow out of the nigger business.
It ain’t easy being green.
- Ebony L. Haynes