I’ve been working on this series of pepper spray paintings based on the murder of black motorist Walter Scott at the hands of a white Charleston police officer that happened this past spring. They will be exhibited for the first time at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh NC, August 1 – 31. I had a studio visit with Chris Vitiello from the Indy during which we sprayed pepper spray, coughed, cried, and talked art. Chris wrote a pretty fantastic article about the experience and the work. It’s been hard for me to get my thoughts organized about this latest development in the pepper spray work, but when recently asked how I felt about potential accusations that I culturally appropriated Scott’s death, I found a voice and replied:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“6 seconds, 13 Yards” is an evolving project consisting of six pepper spray paintings based on stills from on an eyewitness video documenting the shooting of Walter Scott by a white police officer this past spring. Each painting represents one of the six seconds it took for Scott to flee thirteen yards, be shot six times in the back and collapse. I then reanimated these images into a short video loop, which will be added to over the next year as the paintings fade and video loop’s visuals are stripped away, leaving nothing but the sting behind.
This art is made with police-grade pepper spray and will cause harm if inhaled or touched. Chemicals in the spray oxidize and turn white, making the orange pepper oil pigments nearly invisible over time. Within a year, these images will be nearly invisible, and yet its chemical ability to burn, congest, and blind will remain strong long after these images become a memory.
This work is about memory and responsibility. It is about bearing witness to horrors and owning up to one’s role in them. It is about how we allow our memory of disasters to fade away, while their effects linger and ripple. It is about the the privilege of forgetfulness and the importance of being mindful. Walter Scott’s murder and the many other instances of racially-motivated violence are devastating events for the Black community, but it can’t be only the black community that is touched by them. We are part of a larger community together. These are civic events that must touch us all.
We all have responsibility of witness. Responsibility of engagement. Responsibility of representation. There is a white person in those images. He represents all white people; he acts in our name, with our sanction and according to our rules. He also represents an institutional racism that creates and maintains privilege for some at the expense of others. This has to be seen, understood, and reckoned with by those who benefit.
I’m an artist. It’s my job to make art about the things going on around me and to get audiences to engage with those events and ideas in new ways that might encourage deeper or new insight. It is wrong to stay silent about deaths like Walter Scott’s, or the system that causes them to keep happening. This work is meant to make the audience physically and emotionally uncomfortable, to jostle them out of just another safe art gallery experience. The art world is still dominantly white. We are exactly who needs to be challenging ourselves about our role in institutional racism. I’m not using these images to be sensationalist; I’m using them because they need to be looked at and thought about. Confronting racism isn’t just a job for black people.
And while I’m at it, I want to link to a couple articles I found helpful and poignant:
- Black Millenials, “How to Be a White Ally” http://blackmillennials.com/2014/10/16/how-to-be-a-white-ally/
- Janee Woods, The Root: “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People” http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/08/ferguson_how_white_people_can_be_allies.html