Northwestern University exhibit depicts history of anti-Black violence: 'Impossible to erase'

EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- "A Site of Struggle" at Northwestern University's Block Museum of Art chronicles America's history of anti-Black violence through the eyes of artists.

The exhibition spans the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1890s to the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.

"I hope that the art gives people a chance to pause and really get a deep understanding of the deep roots of racial violence in our country," said Janet Dees, the curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition features some Chicago artists like Kerry James Marshall. In his work, "Heirlooms and Accessories," Marshall found an image of a double lynching from Indiana in the 1930s that included three white women in the crowd. The artist put women's faces in cameos to symbolize their roles as accessories to murder. The work of art highlights how racism has been passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms.

"Part of what this work is doing is it's taking the emphasis off of the victims of this violence, and shining a light on the perpetrators and the spectators," Dees said.

Some parts of the exhibition come with a warning due to graphic content.

The museum has areas where people can step away and decompress if they become overcome with emotion.

"There is a lot of our history that is painful," she said.

Dees emphasizes this exhibition was years in the making - not in response to the racial demonstrations of 2020.

"That just underscores the way in which histories of racial violence have been such a long part of our country's history, and a long part of our art history," she said.

This exhibition debuts amidst a national debate over how Americans should discuss issues of race in schools.

"We have an active authoritative movement where at least one of the major parties is working to erase America's racial history with book bans and anti-critical race theory discourse," said Alvin Tillery, the director of the Center for the Study of Diversity & Democracy at Northwestern University.

Tillery said exhibitions like this are so important.

"It is impossible to erase these images of the painful truth of America's race relations and anti-Black violence," he said. "It's really meaningful."

Dees believes this exhibition could inspire people to take action, tackling racial inequities of the present that are rooted in the past.

"In enacting change we have to think not only about the sort of policies and laws, but also about how do you connect with people's hearts and minds. And I think art is one way that we can connect with hearts and minds," she said.

"A Site of Struggle" runs until July 10.
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