Civil Rights

Void's timely and pertinent exhibition shows that racial equality is yet but a dream in modern America

There is an old joke, in which a man is driving through a strange town. He is lost, so he pulls over and asks a passer-by for directions. When the pedestrian hears the destination, he shakes his head slowly and says: 'Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.'

I attend this exhiibtion in Derry~Londonderry's Void gallery on the morning it is announced that the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – one Darren Wilson, a caucasian – would not face murder charges. The news told of instant protests in cities across the United States, and more riots in Ferguson, itself.

Civil Rights – We Have it in Our Power to Begin the World Again is a show curated by Void's own Maoliosa Boyle and Lynette Yiadom Boakye, a nominee for the 2013 Turner Prize. The title is derived from a quote by Thomas Paine, the 18th century philosopher and revolutionary.

 

The exhibition is about the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America, and the influence it had on the Civil Rights campaigns in Northern Ireland and, particularly, in Derry-Londonderry. It features work by a number of American artists, as well as newspapers and documents from the time. As a result, the show is one in which the political, the social, and the artistic all bleed together.

Essentially, it is about injustice and the demand for justice. It is about history and the here and now. It is about struggle, resolve and determination. It is about justified rage – a vision that is direct, clear, simple, and plain. It is about beauty born of truth and justice.

There is one stunning piece of work here, which I find mesmerising and breathtaking. 'Six Miles From Springfield on the Franklin Road' is a film created by black American artists, Kara Walker in 2009, who recently enjoyed a full-scale solo exhibition in Belfast's The MAC.

The characters in the film are puppet cut-outs that we see in silhouette against backdrops of delicate and beautiful colours, with an elegant piano soundtrack. The story is of slavery and the American South. It is a story of violence, love, exploitation, brutality, beauty, poverty, fatigue, pain, racism and grinding control. A complex piece, there is a searing clarity in this work.

Clarity is a constant throughout the show, in fact. The work here is direct and full of conviction. It looks you in the eye certain of its ground. I love Hank Willis Thomas’ 'Freedom Ride', for example, a painting of the symbol of the 1961 activists who took buses into the states of the deep South to demand that the laws regarding non-segregation be challenged. The painting is white and blue and clear and sharp.

 

Another work of his here is 'Invisible Man'. Again clear and sharp, this is a solid perspex rectangle, completely transparent except at the edges where, if you stand in the right position, you can see images of a minstrel, black and white and having to kowtow.

Kerry James Marshall’s work is more difficult, in a way. There are two of his paintings here – 'Den Mother' and 'Scout Master'. In each, a black figure is shown wearing cub scout uniform, badges on the sleeves. The images contain troubling juxtapositions and a sense of exclusion, and the feeling of not fitting properly.

The exhibition presents a number of pieces from the private collection of Claude Simard, co-founder of the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. These include period political posters and images of protests. One poster lists its demands as 'land, bread, housing, clothing, education, justice and peace'.

Another is a photograph of the activist, Angela Davis, her eyes clear, her expression uncompromising and certain. A collection of Black Panther newspapers is on exhibit too. Again, they are frank and direct and right.

A timeline from the 1960s shows the relation between the American and Northern Irish civil rights movements. In the gallery next door, there are two photographic exhibitions. One is a collection of images taken in Derry-Londonderry in the late 1960s by Gilles Caron. The other features pictures by Wade Goddard of East Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In both, images of humanity shine hesitantly out of the destruction, hopeful that a new world will arise out of the rubble. That hope remains.

Civil Rights run in Void, Derry~Londonderry until December 20.