Bert Williams in Blackface by Samuel Lumiere, via Wikimedia Commons
A few weeks ago, I was perusing Twitter and noticed some tweets about an art exhibition that featured work partly inspired by the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve been interested in artistic responses to social justice issues for quite some time so this art nerd and Missouri native was thrilled to see activist and We the Protesters leader Johnetta “Netta” Elzie live-streaming her trip to Gallery Guichard in Chicago, Illinois to see Ti-Rock Moore’s exhibition Confronting Truths: Wake Up!.
Unfortunately, that’s where my excitement ended. As Elzie asked the gallery co-owner, Andre Guichard, about the artist’s intent, fees, and permissions for using the likenesses of Michael Brown, Jr. and the Charleston 9, he was combative, defensive, patronizing, misogynistic, and rude. Guichard embodied every negative art gallery owner stereotype there is. As an art museum professional, I cringed. As a black woman, I wanted to have words with him for talking to a sister that way. It became very clear that this exhibit and its host gallery are a collective hot ass mess.
Don’t take my word for it. See for yourselves here and here.
This farce is irresponsibility of the highest order. It’s irresponsible art making and irresponsible art dealing. It’s also racist, violent, and anti-black.
Ti-Rock Moore, a white woman in her 50s from New Orleans, admits the moniker under which she works has a “hip hop vibe” and is “deliberate“, a linguistic slight-of-hand that exploits age-old racial stereotypes and tropes. Moore stated her work examines the “very complicated systems that create advantages for white people and disadvantages for others”, yet a closer examination reveals it is routinely via the co-option of blackness and denigration of Black bodies.
Moore’s work in Confronting Truths consists of slave shackles, remixed Confederate flags, an overabundance of nooses, neon signs, slurs, and a black Statue of Liberty. Possession, a multi-media installation of silhouettes of black men imprisoned by bars made of real dollar bills particularly galling. Attempting to contextualize this piece in an interview last month, Moore explained, “young black men are commodities in this country today and they have been since the days of slavery.” However, when asked how she justified profiting from black bodies, Moore response was glib: “My art is expensive to make. I am very far in the hole, and it has gotten to the point that I must start making money to be able to make more art.”
And that she has. Moore’s been on a cultural appropriation tour since 2014, winning prizes that catapulted her to Art Basel Miami, exhibiting alongside well-known artists such as Hank Willis Thomas and Kadir Nelson, and landing her first solo show at Gallery Guichard where works are reportedly selling for thousands of dollars.
It’s an amazingly rapid trajectory for an emerging visual artist, one rarely afforded artists of the Black diaspora who depict their actual lived experiences. But this is standard issue art world racism. The system is behaving exactly as intended. As activist DeRay McKesson often says, “watch whiteness work.”
How does this happen, you might wonder? Well, it’s no secret that Black culture is profitable, particularly for those who aren’t Black. It’s routinely commoditized, the blackness scrubbed away and repackaged for white audiences. This cultural theft deems Beyoncé’s physicality shameful while Miley Cyrus is dubbed captain of the feminist twerk team. Black pain is even more lucrative. Mainstream media is fueled by “riot” porn, racist pandering, fear mongering, humanizing puff pieces about the murderers of Black people, and constant depictions of our deaths and brutalization. We are continually trolled and traumatized for profit, rarely sharing in the proceeds unless we’re willing to participate in our dehumanization.
Confronting Truths perpetuates this anti-black narrative and demonstrates that whiteness need not be present for white supremacy to flourish. Systemic racism traps us all and is often so internalized we’re unaware of its effects. This is what allows Andre Guichard to defend the exhibition as “responsible” and “right in your face” and Frances Guichard to state that if Moore was trying to co-opt blackness, “she would [for example] try to be somebody that infiltrated into sex trafficking and [being] victimized but she didn’t do that.”
All this reaching and still missing the point.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, Angelitos Negros, features a life-size silicone sculpture of Michael Brown, Jr. on the ground after his murder, surrounded by the detritus of a death investigation, beneath a video of Eartha Kitt singing the song which shares the installation’s name. This work, more than any other, encapsulates everything that is offensive and reckless about this exhibition. While it isn’t for sale, it occupies a large swath of physical and emotional space in the gallery and is viewable from the street. It serves as a surrogate carnival barker, its spectacle and triggering imagery resulting in sales of Moore’s work, just another black body being consumed, repackaged, and repurposed for maximum profit.
When unfavorable reviews poured in, the Guichards waged a social media campaign effusively praising and exculpating Moore while she avoided direct discussion online, using her Black benefactors as human shields. When Moore finally emerged from her cocoon of white privilege, it was to insist that any critique received from the black community was due to “misinformation” and falsely claim that Elzie’s “low quality video” only focused on the Michael Brown work. Moore ascribed negative responses to the video’s dissemination, saying it “ignited this media sensation“, rather than the ill-conceived and poorly-executed work itself. But I suppose Moore’s video, captured before Elzie’s and shared with nary a trigger warning, tells a more high-quality and nuanced story.
In a tweet that has since been deleted from its feed, Gallery Guichard justified the Michael Brown work by posting a picture of Brown’s family visiting the exhibition, implying their full endorsement. What wasn’t mentioned was that Lesley McSpadden originally thought her son would be depicted in a photograph and requested the sculpture be covered up before her arrival, and that Michael Brown Sr. was unaware of the exhibition and finds it “disturbing” and “disgusting.” Moore said she regrets Michael Brown, Sr. wasn’t notified but apparently not enough to stop causing him pain.
Gallery Guichard purports to highlight art of the African diaspora, yet shamelessly centers whiteness in Confronting Truth. While I’m not convinced the exhibition isn’t purely for stunts and shows, any perceived good intention is flawed by implementation. Why not stage a group exhibition with Moore as a participant rather than the main event, jury a competition open to Black artists who struggle with visibility and financial solvency in the art world, or collaborate with galleries in the St. Louis Metro, Charleston, or Long Island on a traveling exhibition?
Confronting Truths doesn’t live up to its name. Devoid of honesty, integrity, and authenticity, it upholds and emboldens white privilege instead of disrupting or dismantling it. Moore’s work is not avant-garde; it’s artistic blackface, wrapped in respectable, performative blackness, the embodiment of destructive allyship. If this is the kind of work that “starts discussions“, I’d rather everyone involved stay quiet.