Hopefully by now you have seen Chris Watts‘ exhibition, Blahk on Blahk on Blak, on view at Gallery 22 in Plaza Midwood. We checked in with Jessica Moss, the exhibition curator, to learn more, and she kindly shared her essay, Blackness Illuminated, found below. Jess, who also works as the Creative Director at the Gantt Center, is becoming a critical part of the art community. We’re glad she’s here, and happy to share her words on this project.
In 2015, The Washington Post created a database cataloging¹ every fatal shooting nationwide by a police officer in the line of duty, collecting data on those who were killed and details of the shootings. The effort began because data compiled by the federal government was unreliable and incomplete. In 2016, the Post’s database won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting .
According to the Post’s database, 963 people were fatally shot by police in 2016. As of March 2017, we have already had 204 American citizens shot and killed by police, and as of a week ago, there have been 24 more fatal shootings this year than at the same time last year. Although the database is a valuable resource for cataloguing the state, race, gender and age of those killed, the database does not record what effect these killings might or can have on the psyche and lives of those who were affected, involved, or who witnessed the traumatic events.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]² is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Some experiences, like the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one, witnessing an unjust murder, or the constant exposure to painful or violent imagery can lead to PTSD in an individual. These traumatic experiences lead to long-term issues – from major personality shifts and flashbacks, in which the individual relives the trauma over and over, to recurring bad dreams and frightening thoughts, to tense and aggressive mood swings. Ultimately, these symptoms, while no longer triggered, now remain a constant in the genetic makeup of the individual.
Doctors often recommend that those who experience PTSD stay away from places, events and objects that could potentially remind them of their traumatic experience. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car. However, what happens when you can’t avoid it?
The on-going obsession to publicly document black trauma can be traced back to American public lynchings and is deeply rooted in both European liberalism and white supremacy in uniquely dangerous ways. By attempting to address the relationship between personal experience and political structure, in relation to their own and other’s blackness, many artists and scholars– from novelist Ralph Ellison to philosopher Frantz Fanon to poet James Baldwin to filmmaker Issa Rae– have long grappled with themes of trauma, visibility, and invisibility.
When the historically invisible are offered a brief moment of visibility, but only as a result of their death, what have we really afforded ourselves?
Author of The Second Skin, Anne Anlin Cheng says, “Painting celebrates no other enigma but of visibility.” Again, we find ourselves turning to art as a potential solution to a sustained problem. Brooklyn and Paris-based multidisciplinary artist, Chris Watts creates projects of disruption by examining the people, images and scenes of our everyday lives. Watts’ 2017 series, Blahk on Blahk on Blak, considers the effect of media representation and police brutality on the black body. Through painting, Watts questions how the desire to visualize trauma might affect us overtime.
Through a process that begins with the artist exposing himself to the footage from body cameras, public surveillance tapes and pedestrian iphone footage, Watts experiments with creating visual representations of suspended historicity and trauma. Watts says, “While going through the reels to trim and edit, I was always really affected by it. Often times depressed for days after trying to edit. Listening to Diamond Reynolds guide us through the incident which resulted in the death of her boyfriend Philando Castile is still unfair but also remarkably important. How are these images not efficient?”
Creating a consistent ground upon which the work can be considered, this series of transparent paintings were made particularly for black gallery walls to, both literally and metaphorically, ground the work in Blackness. The materials Watts uses have the ability to bend or slow down the flow of light. Soft and sheer textiles, like poly-chiffon, silk, and other poly-blends wrapped around found wooden framed are made by the artist. These supports are then squeegeed through, with epoxy resin, to create a hardened and glass-like surface. Often using tools like HPLV guns and aerosol cans, Watts expands on the idea that the artist is in control of the pressure and intentional rebellion.
Watts’ experimentation with transparencies establishes a relationship between the multiple surfaces in one space and provides the viewer with the opportunity to see themselves in and through the work.
In the piece, Feidin’s Story (Remembering Walter), Watts uses acrylic paint, pigment, mica, artificial resin, found wood and polyester to create a reflective surface. The surface, again, references concepts of visibility and invisibility,inclusion or exclusion, seen through the reflection of the spectator. “These surfaces of handmade lens force the viewer to actively interact with the work in order to grasp the totality of the image. Their perception of the work changes as they move around the work. They make us hypersensitive to the role the wall plays in the experience of painting – the sense of distance, and therefore of value, that it enforces. When the lighting hits, I want the people to see themselves in it,” says Watts.
One of the largest, yet, most quiet pieces in the series, Feidin’s Story (Remembering Walter) references the shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 4, 2015. Following a daytime traffic stop for a non-functioning brake light, Scott was fatally shot by a white North Charleston police officer. The officer was charged with murder after a video surfaced which showed him shooting Scott from behind while Scott was fleeing, and which contradicted his police report. The case was independently investigated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina, and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are currently conducting their own investigations. In June 2015, a South Carolina grand jury indicted Slager on a charge of murder. He was released on bond in January 2016. In late 2016, a five-week trial ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury . A retrial is scheduled for March 2017.³
Considering the reflection of the viewer, in previous works of Watts, the human form or figure was often present. In Blahk on Blahk on Blak, we see no allusion to the human form. The artist says, “ I began to reconsider, not so much as to abort representation of the figure altogether, nor neglect it, but privilege the figure and re-examine our relationship to surface.” Watts’ elimination of the figure in this body of work, or the absence of the form, is such an eloquent metaphor for the literal loss of the black body, continuously murdered by its own governing state.
In the article “Against Representation” published on dismagazine in 2017, Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale University David Joselit says, “In the case of the video showing [Eric] Garner being assaulted, the fact that his choking was recorded but didn’t lead to the outcome expected — namely, an indictment of the police officer involved — is an instance of the difference between what an image seems to show and what it can actually do.”4 This continued exploration of truth and fiction, real and fake, visible and invisible is seen through Watt’s experimentation with symbol, surface and transparency. “Creating representations of windows as switches into another, layered, assemblage of spaces where the distinction between what is real and what is represented is thoroughly confused,” says Watts. By allowing the viewer to ponder the actual with the artistic representation, Watts empowers his audience to make their own decisions about what they see in the work.
These documented episodes of police brutality on American citizens are more accessible now than ever before due to technological advances like individual cellphone cameras, ‘preventative tools’ like police body cameras and security camera footage, and the amount of media and news coverage of the violent acts. According to a news report by CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues, the New York Police Department is implementing the country’s largest body camera program. By 2019, more than 20,000 officers will wear the cameras. Peter Newsham, the interim police chief of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department says, “You have people out there in our community that are asking for transparency.” “How much of a role do these cameras play in that transparency?” Pegues asked. “It’s a huge role,” Newsham said, “And that’s the thing I think folks have to keep in mind, is that the community really wants this.”
As a result, we have to inquire, what long term damage could we be causing ourselves?