ABOVE: Courtesy of Ruckus
BELOW: Courtesy of Organize Your Own
BELOW: Courtesy of Organize Your Own
︎ Hite Art Institute, Louisville
Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements
In 2012, a group of radical Appalachian transplants approached Daniel Tucker with an idea. Aware that Tucker was a Kentuckian, they wanted help re-publishing poetry they had created as part of the Young Patriots Organization, a white working-class-led racial justice organization in Chicago in the 1960s. Tucker saw an opportunity to incorporate the poetry into something ongoing and contemporary: a collaboration between another white antiracist organization from a similar era, the October 4th Organization, and other working artists on a new body of work inspired by the chapbooks of the Young Patriots. Seven years later, the performance- and place-based traveling exhibition from Philadelphia has made its way to the Bluegrass heartland.
Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements includes analysis of white supremacy by white artists as well as a broader range of commentary from artists of color. Dan S. Wang’s dreamlike black-and-white Course Poster (2015), woodcut and letterpress on Japanese paper, poses a theoretical course about Chinese student education of American cultural realities. Dave Pabellon’s invitingly literal c/o Jolanta (2015), three digital color prints, are high-contrast transmutations of chapbook poetry into American Sign Language. True to form as part of a poetry-prompted concept exhibition, typography and text play a significant role in almost all of the other works in the show as well.
One such print work is Frank Sherlock’s No Border, No Cry (2016). Its bold headings form the first word of each line of poetry on every page--”forget”, “become”, “remember”--draw the viewer in to examine smaller, perpendicular rungs of text that draw parallels between the cultural icons of leftist Irish Catholic political struggle and the international struggles for liberty and self-determination of Black Americans, Palestinians, Indians, South Africans, and others. While Irish political history is not a part of the cultural zeitgeist that the Irish identity embodies in U.S. popular culture today, Irish heritage is a common thread in many working class white experiences in the United States. Sherlock’s references in the poem may prompt curiosity and encourage viewers to delve into the rich history of solidarity therein.
In The Ways of White Folks (2015, serigraph) and Words for Today, (2016, pencil on paper) Mary Patten reproduces written works or excerpts by mainly Black authors. The Ways of White Folks is a reproduction of the cover of Langston Hughes’ book by the same title, enlarged and in reverse so that the viewer must use a mirror or phone to read the text as it would normally be seen. The viewer then appears in the reflection as they view the work, confronted with the juxtaposition of their own reflection with the contents of Hughes’s text.
Irina Contreras’s video work It’s Firm Ground Here… (2016) is among the most adventurous in discipline. It depicts an informal conversation with a white woman who discusses what it means to identify as a “race traitor” alongside the artist’s poetry overlayed in text over most of the video. Contreras highlights the power disparities between them, drawing distinctions between the power she holds in creating the piece and the power of whiteness to benefit white people, even self-described race traitors: “I do so with intention around/editing and picking/what will be seen or heard/There should be power/in that but there isn’t at all./Because it’s not real power.” To listen to the conversation, the viewer must stand very close to the television mounted on the wall as attention volleys between the speaker and the words on the screen, expressing unfolding thought processes, alienation, and discomfort. It can be difficult to discern the speaker in the gallery, but the video is also available online for a better sensory experience.
Many Kentuckians who venture outside of the region have at least one experience with a pseudo-intellectual outsider who demands an explanation of the “ignorance” and “vitriol” of the monolithic “White Working Class” of the South, assumptions which erase the presence of people of color in the area and the resistance embedded throughout its history. It is refreshing to see a project in Kentucky derived from a different narrative. Learning about the conception of this exhibition, the viewer envisions the curator as a captive audience of Anne Braden as an elementary schooler at the Brown School. They can also envision young Southern working class white people alongside the Black Panthers in Chicago at a point of cultural shift in the past. Lastly, they are invited to delve into the history of Braden proteges organizing for racial justice in Louisville through Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice (LSURJ) in alliance with organizations like the Fairness Campaign, Black Lives Matter, and Mijente in two videos containing oral histories of Braden-inspired racial organizing of the past and present, though the videos were absent from the exhibition. These representations of a justice-oriented past and present provide a much needed respite from the incomplete image of this region evoked by the ubiquitous “Trump Country” thinkpieces proliferating in popular culture since 2016.
Notably, this exhibition takes place at the University of Louisville’s on-campus gallery rather than its downtown Cressman Center facility. The Schneider Hall Galleries are nestled within the pedestrian crossways of the campus, accessible most easily by U of L students rather than the gallery-goers on Main Street. The show therefore reaches a different demographic and occurs within a distinctive context. Whereas the average Cressman Center gallery patron may be a tourist, gallery-hopping art enthusiast, or aesthetically curious passerby, the average patron of Schneider Hall is probably a student at a Kentucky public university, perhaps even from a background like those of the working class activists who inspired this project. This is possibly the most effective component of the exhibition as it stands in Louisville. Rather than existing in a more traditional art context where the audience is limited to people who feel comfortable in and compelled to seek out art museums and galleries, usually upper- or middle-class white people with time and money to spend on art, this work is able to engage with a wider demographic who stands to benefit most from its ever-prescient lessons. For this reason, more information surrounding each piece and the figures that inspired them in the gallery itself would be useful to facilitate this education and improve the exhibition’s impact on the community.
We must continue to interrogate the political capacity of the arts to bring about cohesion and innovation in future movements for social change. Even the Bradens themselves, however, were not exactly working class; a future show centering working class and poor artists invested in organizing around racial justice could have great impact in a segregated Southern working class city like Louisville.
Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements is on display in Schneider Hall at the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute through February 22.
Schneider Hall is located at 2300 South First Street Walk, Louisville, Kentucky, 40208 and is open Monday-Friday from 9am-4:30pm.
Leah Hughes, Guest Contributor to Ruckus
Dan S. Wang, Course Poster (2015), woodcut and letterpress on Japanese paper.
Dave Pabellon, c/o Jolanta (2015), digital print.
Mary Patten, the Ways of White Folks (2015), 4-color process serigraph.
Irina Contreras, It's Firm Ground Here... (2016), video.