ABOVE: You Sang Off Key (2020), Brianna Harlan, installation, fabric (velvet).All photos courtesy of Skylar Smith
Brittany J. Thurman
At eight, my grandmother pulled her blue Dodge Dynasty into a church parking lot. We didn’t sit in this church’s pews on Sundays. We didn’t know their white-gloved ushers by name. On this day there was no familiar face to sneak me a peppermint. This day was not a Sunday.
Inside, the building swarmed with people, the air foggy, with muffled words sprinkled across the space. Some laughter. I stood at my grandmothers’ hip as more of us streamed inside. Grandmother had come to vote. At the age of eight, I knew voting was a privilege not yet granted to me. Not yet. But my grandmother wanted me to know, one day it would be my turn. One day I would stand in her spot. Cast my ballot. Place it in a physical, or virtual box. On that day in the nineties, the journey for my grandmother had been one of walk in, walk out. Check. But she knew, only decades ago, easy was not a word we used to describe casting our vote as Black women. My grandmother instilled in me what her parents instilled in her.
In an embodiment of that history, the exhibition BallotBox at Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel engages issues related to the right to vote, and features the work of artists Brianna Harlan, James Robert Southard, Jennifer Maravillas, Sandra Charles, and Taylor Sanders. Their work isn’t intended to be looked at and passed over; BallotBox was created to spark conversation and dialogue.
The timing of BallotBox coincides with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Yet, this amendment was missing one key word: White. If my great-great-grandmother attempted to vote in 1920, she would have no doubt been met with resistance. It wasn’t until forty-five years later that the Voting Rights Act passed, which prohibited racial discrimination in regard to voting. Prior to this act, literacy tests and poll taxes met Black people at voting place doors. These restrictions and unfair regulations were a puzzle made purposefully unsolvable. Even if someone passed a literacy test or paid a poll tax, Black people still felt resistance, denial, and a slammed door in their face.
Visualizing the difficulties Black voters face, Brianna Harlan’s You Sang Off Key lines a wall with three posters next to a physical ballot box in chains. The poster on the left uses text to tell the story of Harlan’s own grandmother, civil rights activist Mattie Jones, who attempted to vote in 1933. When demanded to sing the national anthem, she was told by an officer that she ‘sang off key’. There are many stories like Mattie’s. Stories of voter discrimination, intimidation, and refusal. Stories held by grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Many heard, some never told.
The next poster depicts Jones’ face behind the bolded words, “You Sang off Key,” in red, white, and blue. Her expression gives off the collective fatigue of generations of Black voters who have been faced with a blockade at the polls. The poster on the right gives off a different aura, one of release. Relief. Chains broken. Multiple generations are contained within this digitally created poster—a collage of monochromatic faces—with Mattie F. Jones and Brianna Harlan both wearing smiles. It states, “Mattie F. Jones Way. She sings. KY Civil Rights Hall of Fame.” Collective fatigue gone. Within, Mattie F. Jones not only sings, she speaks. Her activism in the present day is portrayed through her stance, no doubt a reflection on the activism the Freedom Award recipient continues to lead today.
The ballot box beside these three posters is open but sealed with a physical chain—a stand-in for the barriers Black people have faced to have their vote count. Here, that barrier is a literal chain, thick and rusted with the decades-long wait. It covers the box, which hangs from gallows on top of a platform. It reminds me of gallows an ancestor was placed upon. A newer, shiny silver chain hangs off it, representing the present-day struggles placed on Black and brown people at the booth. When I first saw this box, it caused me to physically pause and take a breath. It brought me physical discomfort and hurt to literally see the struggle that we as Black people face, and that this struggle is not only confined to the past. But, as I released that breath, I felt a flood of dignity and strength. Rusty chains are easily broken.
Guessing Game by Taylor Sanders similarly explores barricades that Black voters faced at the polls. One silver-rimmed, see-through container, measuring at least four feet in height holds an undisclosed amount of plastic, colorful balls, reminiscent of what you see inside a gumball machine. The container sits on top of a wooden box, which states the words, “Literacy Test.” Sanders’ piece is a play on Jim Crow-era literacy tests deliberately created to be unpassable. “Spell backwards, forwards”, or “Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence” are two examples of actual questions that showed up on literacy tests. Not only were they written to be confusing, they were written to be impassable. The fear and intimidation of literacy tests were yet another barrier Black citizens faced when enacting their right to vote.
Sandra Charles’s series of paintings illustrate a multigenerational perspective of Black womens’ experience with voting. In Grandma’s Vote, a Black woman holds a cane and red purse along her arm, a slip of paper in her hand. Behind her are posters and signs with the words, “Your Voting Rights”, “Notice”, “Precinct,” and “Identification”. On the ground is a sign that once said “Poll Tax” and “Literacy Test”, wrinkled as if it’s just been trampled. Grandma’s Vote is a take on the history of voting rights, from slavery to Jim Crow, with a Black woman walking toward a new dawn.
I Vote, also by Charles, depicts a younger Black woman who stands proud, one hand at her hip in an almost fist. A large piece of paper is in her hands with the words right/left behind her. Her decision has been made. I Vote encompasses the determination in Black voters from the past. They marched, protested and now, they vote. I also see I Vote as a reflection on the present day, not without its own voting challenges. She is the Black woman who stood in line for hours in 2020 to have her vote counted. She is the Black woman who requested an absentee ballot for not only herself but each elder, too.
The final piece in Charles’ series, Her Vote looks towards tomorrow. A Black woman with a phone in her hand, wearing a black hoodie, and an American flag scarf tied around her hair stands in front of two signs pointing to the right. “Vote Here” and “Exit.” She is the voter of the future, who has walked the same past as her mother and grandmother. I see myself in all three of Sandra Charles’s paintings, but I don’t only see these as individual paintings. I look at them as a whole. Three pieces to one puzzle. Each person within the paintings is a maker and impetus for change.
History is a cycle. The instances of voter suppression presented within BallotBox aren’t only limited to the past. These same issues were seen in last month’s presidential election. It was something as unassuming as attempting to navigate the county clerk website. For those who are not computer savvy, having to click on multiple links that eventually led to how to request an absentee ballot was not only confusing, but consuming. Then, there were the instances of absentee ballots never arriving, being destroyed or lost. Come election day, long lines swept outside of voting place doors. How convenient for these lines to be made up of Black voters. Purposeful? I don’t doubt it. And once inside, what if you did not have the correct form of identification? Yet another instance of how voters in the present continue to be forced away.
It was only in 1965 that we marched for the removal of barriers preventing the Black vote. It was only yesterday that we marched yet again for the world to one day wake up and realize Black lives deserve to breathe. It seems, each month, each year, each decade brings a new reason to take to the streets. I hope future elections result in zero boundaries. While hoping is just that, what I am sure of is that BallotBox has become a door to highlight these issues. It has and will provide each viewer with a chance to delve into America’s grim past and compare it to the often bleak present. Each person viewing the art in BallotBox has the chance to recognize history. The choice is theirs to not be oblivious to present day issues.
Accompanying curator Skylar Smith’s statement is a list of names, individuals and companies who have shown support and contributions to BallotBox. Beyond the curator and artists, I would have appreciated additional statements by the individuals who have made BallotBox possible. Especially if those individuals are Black. What does BallotBox mean to them? What was their motivation and catalyst for contributing? What impact do they see BallotBox having on the future? While art is often created in a type of silo, not shown until the artist is ready, there are so many additional stories each of us have associated with the right to vote. We are all connected to this exhibition in one way or another.
BallotBoxArt.com not only showcases the work of these five artists, but provides information on Smith, her reasoning behind curating the exhibition, background on each artist, and ways in which to take action. Questions and prompts asked by each artist aren’t only on the walls of the physical exhibition, they are available through a submittable form on the BallotBox virtual exhibition. Just as voting issues still affect many today, conversations and dialogue need to continue. Through BallotBox, this is how change ignites. This is continuing the conversation.
Brittany J. Thurman is an author of children’s books, and former Children’s Specialist for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Her debut picture book, Fly, publishes Spring, 2022. Brittany is currently the Studio Programs Manager at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
You Sang Off Key (2020), Brianna Harlan, installation, sculpture.
Artwork by Sandra Charles. From left to right: Grandma's Vote, I Vote, Her Vote. All oil on canvas, 2020.
Guessing Game (2020), Taylor Sanders, mixed media.