Like the rest of America, I woke up today to news that two protestors had been killed in Kenosha, Wisconsin overnight, during demonstrations over the police shooting of yet another unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake. Images of the unrest that led to these fatalities show the symbols of the everyday dystopia to which we’ve all become inured over this dreadful summer: a haze of tear gas, police officers in riot gear, a shell casing on the concrete, and demonstrators putting their safety, and indeed their lives, on the line to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Around this time yesterday, I was visiting the Grassroots Gallery in Arts Garage, inhaling its most important exhibition to date: “The Right Side of History,” featuring eight local Black artists whose wrenching work draws from the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted worldwide since the death of George Floyd. Would that such an exhibit have offered a retrospective of a troubled period of recent history that is now bending forcefully toward justice. The news of the past few days—and hours—only serves to reinforce the pessimism, the tragedy and the crushing vitality of the darkest dispatches from “The Right Side of History.”
Take Patricia Saintval’s “To Whom it May Concern,” a text-driven work organized like a crime map from an old detective movie, with string connecting thumb tacks representing sundry shootings of unarmed Black Americans. This is already a vivid way to remind audiences of the commonplace nature of such killings through a pop-cultural vernacular, but Saintval deepens the piece through the participatory form of small envelopes. Tucked inside each is a letter from one of the victims (Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin among them), ostensibly written from the Other Side. “I just wanted to take a quick jog,” begins the missive from Ahmaud Arbery. The pain radiating from “To Whom It May Concern” is palpable and unshakable.
Another mixed-media work, Jessica Clermont’s “Restricted,” offers a stark vision of freedoms curtailed, depicting, through yarn on wood, the red, white and blue iconography of the American flag obscuring a figure’s eyes like a blindfold. Her digital print “Dear Black Man” uses a different medium to deliver a similar message: A Black man both blinded and muzzled by the colors of America, which do not include his own.
Elsewhere, Amaryllis McGee uses Pop Art conventions to depict the depersonalization of the Black person in contemporary society, through works like “Living That Li(f)e,” depicting a wounded robot patched together through nuts and bolts; and “Who Are We?,” a suite of 12 Warhol-style mixed-media portraits of faceless androids, distinguished only by the hue of their hearts. In contrast to McGee’s sci-fi symbolism, Alinda Saintval’s “They Let Wolves Guard the Sheep” series favors a bold, immediate and no less powerful sentiment. It consists of paintings of nine black faces, many of them in states of anguish, with reminders of their worth scrawled across their faces: “I am Human,” “My Life Matters,” “Don’t Shoot,” “My Skin is Not a Threat.”
Ethan Dangerwing contributed the most direct response to the news of this shuddering summer—digital photographs from the protests he attended. Each one is a potent time capsule of a movement: the raised fist of “Power,” the rise of interracial protesting as depicted in “Union,” the reclamation of Black voices in “Speak.” They hover around Dangerwing’s centerpiece, “Strange Fruit,” showing a proud Black woman defying a noose dangling in front of her.
This isn’t the only glimmer of hope against a pervasive threat. Andre Clermont’s “Pride” is an enormously moving painting of intersectionality, featuring a portrait of a Black man who is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community—as protestors and counter-protestors vie with opposing signage behind him, smoke billowing in the distance. And “Black Lives Matter,” a painting by the octogenarian artist Amoreth Tucker, offers one of the few purely uplifting monuments to the zeitgeist, with a outsider art-style, rubbery-necked assemblage of Black, brown and white faces united for the cause.
There is truth in this cross-racial connection, just as there is truth in the saddest and angriest critiques of “The Right Side of History.” No matter which works you relate to the most, two things are certain: All of these artists are on this right side, and the issues they’re lamenting are, at least for our heartbreaking present and immediate future, here to stay.
“The Right Side of History” runs through Sept. 11 at Arts Garage, 94 N.E. Second Ave., Delray Beach. Admission is free, but is available by appointment only. Call 561/450-6357 or visit artsgarage.org. You can also view these works in the venue’s virtual gallery here. If you like one, considering purchasing it.