Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bottom rail on top:
Tyler Shields revises the racial equation

IN THE 1988 book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” author James McPherson recounts how, at war’s end in 1865, an escaped slave guarding Confederate prisoners recognizes his former master among the rebel captives and says, “Howdy Massa. Bottom rail on top this time.”

That marvelous expression of underdogs becoming overlords, or something close to it, is at the heart of a series of provocative photographs by Tyler Shields, whose new work explores the ultimate what-if of American society and the racial dynamic. What if the current racial calculus was something completely different?

Shields, whose “Historical Fiction” exhibition opened Saturday at the Andrew Weiss Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., posits a reversal of the violence and bias that’s been historically visited on African Americans throughout our history. At the same time, he sees the extant paralells between the then and the now.

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“Right now we are going through a real racial issue in our country,” Shields told Justin Jones of The Daily Beast. “And, to me, these things that happened in the 20s and 30s, they’re just as poignant today as they were back then.”

“I’ve always loved the idea of seeing the opposite,” Shields told The Daily Beast. “Cops who are beating people up or white people who are hanging black people—what would they think if it was the other way around? What would the KKK say if this happened to them? It would potentially be the most famous photo of that entire generation.”

One of the more truly galvanizing images brings that issue home in 2015 terms like few things could. A white police officer is held down, face down on the ground, with the hands of two black men keeping him pinned there. In an era of numerous black male casualties of the police — Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and the list goes on and sadly on — an image like this speaks its own emotional truth to power.

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THIS DIFFERENT way of looking at African Americans in the broad overview of history isn’t new. In March 1999, “Re/Righting History: Counternarratives by Contemporary African-American Artists” upended expectations of the black artist when it opened at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y.

Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Camille Billops, Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott and Betye Saar (among others) had a hand in artistically revisiting the impact of African Americans in the nation’s life.

Discussing the Katonah exhibition, Dr. Barbara Bloemink, the curator, told the museum that “we need to recognize that history is often quite subjective. It is not just a matter of what is reported, but what is left out.”

TRUE ENOUGH. But history is also a collection of interpretations, an array of viewpoints that couldn’t be more subjective, regardless of how they do or don’t dovetail with the acknowledged reality. History is about what’s contemporaneously perceived or emotionally experienced as well as what’s factually reported.

Two hundred-plus years of institutional imbalance and injustice, and the emotional and psychological damage that injustice created, is what provoked the “counternarrative” of the Katonah exhibition. It also helped make Shields’ work both possible and utterly necessary.

In 1999, Bloemink observed: “As the African proverb states, ‘Until the lions have their histories, tales of history will always glorify the hunter.’” We can consider Tyler Shields button-pushing images a lion’s shot across the bow of our historical complacency.

Image credits: All images © 2014, 2015 Tyler Shields.

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