Review of Michael Coppage's American+ Exhibition:
How Language Defines and Influences Anti-Blackness in the U.S.
By Yvonne Bynoe
Courtesy of the Harris K. Weston Art Gallery
Michael Coppage's American+ exhibition is currently on view at Cincinnati's Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The works present an unvarnished examination of the explicit and implicit biases that create the customs, laws and public policies that permit racial discrimination to wreak havoc on Black Americans and their communities. In his artist statement, the Cincinnati-based Coppage says, "The experience takes culturally normalized, racist stereotypes and provides 'counter narratives' and safe space for conversation."
The works in this exhibition are unflinching and are intended to be a catalyst for the difficult race-centered conversations that viewers should be having amongst themselves regarding their beliefs about and interactions with Black Americans. American+ is a multimedia exhibition that consists primarily of photographic art, but also includes sculpture, handmade jewelry and accessories as well as mixed-media works.
One of the first pieces viewers see when they enter the gallery is a large-scale work, approximately 15 feet tall, depicting a line of White men and White women who have killed Black men. The White figures loom over much smaller portraits of Black men. The dimensions of the two sets of images signal the disproportionate power that the White men and White women had over the lives of the Black men.
Courtesy of the Harris K. Weston Art Gallery
The work, "White Flight," which is part of Coppage's ongoing White Box project is emblematic of how this exhibition is moving the dialogue about race from abstract intellectual banter to real talk about how racial bias impacts everyday Black Americans, regardless of their class, education or income. The words "White Flight'' appear in large white letters against a black background, and the work overlays the stairs of the gallery. In seeing the installation, what immediately came to mind is how resources are tied to Whiteness.
"White Flight" refers to the exodus of White folks from cities to the suburbs once the courts began to dismantle segregation in the mid-1960s. In many cities, when White folks left, many businesses followed rather than cater to the remaining Black residents, regardless of their financial ability to patronize them. Subsequently, limited municipal resources were funneled to the enduring White enclaves while Black urban communities were starved of funding.
Decades later, when White folks decided to return to cities, White-owned businesses "discovered" historically Black neighborhoods, and capital investments were made to revitalize them. The gentrification process then conveniently shed these "emerging" and often re-named communities of their longtime Black residents.
The accompanying phrases in the work: "White Tears," "White Wash," and "White Fragility" are terms that describe strategic gaslighting techniques used by Whites to wield power over Blacks as a means to control valuable resources, including but not limited to jobs, public spaces, real and intellectual property, promotions, school admissions, and loans, which is necessary to maintain the last term in the series: "White Supremacy."
Blackness is a threat to White supremacy insofar as real Black people dispel the mythology. The fear of Blackness is demonstrated in Perfect, a series of six photographs of Coppage. It is a thought-provoking work that expertly confronts the viewer's unconscious beliefs about racial superiority. The positioning of the images are reminiscent of an evolutionary chart. The photograph of the dark complexioned Coppage is the starting point of the sequence, and advancement is measured as his image is lightened up and altered. Coppage thus reaches "perfection" when he's a pale, blue-eyed White man with narrowed lips and nose.
The photographs underscore the pervasiveness of colorism, an under-acknowledged aspect of White supremacy. Trying to achieve "perfection" in the form of whiteness supports horrific practices such as skin bleaching (Remember baseball player Sammy Sosa's transformation). In many corporations, proximity to European beauty and hair standards still covertly informs decisions about which employees, particularly Black women, get important public-facing positions. In Hollywood, the prevailing belief that whiteness is better at the box office has resulted in a myriad illogical casting decisions. One particularly egregious example is the selection of the cafe au lait complexioned actor Zoe Saldaña portraying pianist and singer Nina Simone, a Southern Black woman with an African phenotype. Simone's dark skin and the racial discrimination that she experienced influenced her musical career and informed her political activism.
"White is Right" is a jarring work that depicts three life-sized lynching victims. The work allows the viewer to witness the atrocity firsthand. In the installation, the subjects' hands are bound behind their backs and each figure is swinging from a noose. The three Black bodies, one a woman, are all in silhouette. This technique provides the viewer with general information about individuals from their clothing or lack thereof but obscures enough so that each person is forced to draw their own conclusions about who these Black people were and why they were hanged.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree
The work also alludes to the perverse public nature of lynchings. Lynchings weren't always conducted in the dead of night by a handful of Klansmen. The spectacle of Black bodies swinging (and frequently mutilated) was a common form of entertainment for White communities. Lynchings and the circus-like atmosphere surrounding them not only emphasized the societal power dynamic but also how little value Whites attached to Black lives. The Black body swinging from the noose was no more important to the White onlooker than a cow or hog that had been slaughtered for their consumption.
Between 1882 and 1962, an estimated 4,000 Blacks were lynched. Historian Phillip Dray, in his 2002 book The Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America wrote: "Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic."
In reviewing Coppage's work, I was reminded of Howardena Pindell's 1980 video, "Young Free and 21." Pindell was born in 1943 and in the video, she recounts the blatant racism and microaggressions that she endured throughout her life, starting as a child. Pindell also dons whiteface makeup and a blonde wig to portray the White women of the 1950s and 1960s who hurled the racist insults at her.
Pindell, similar to Coppage, who has received numerous complaints about the exhibition, received hate mail not because her video was false but because it put White folks in a bad light. Both artists created works which made it clear that Black trauma shouldn't be channeled into something positive and palatable for the masses. It is this damning history that people want to erase when they carp about All Lives Matter in response to any factual discussion of racial injustice.
Coppage is quoted as saying "Small incremental changes surrounding language can lead to huge transformative cultural shifts. Ultimately, the goal is to demystify, understand and connect through discourse.”
In the words of the late Los Angeles rap artist, Nipsey Hussle, "The marathon continues."
Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is also a cultural critic and author.
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