Confronting Erasure: “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” at the Speed Art Museum

“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” had me shaken up before I had even set foot in the city, the museum, or the galleries that house it. The exhibition honors Breonna Taylor, who was murdered in March 2020 by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department while resting in her home. It also addresses the larger fight for racial justice that intensified after her death, amid unrelenting state violence against Black people. The curator, Allison Glenn, worked with Taylor’s family, as well as local and national committees, to choose a constellation of themes and artworks that would represent the twenty-six-year-old’s legacy. The resulting show, encompassing twenty-three artists, responds to a history of what the American dream has promised, documents the contemporary resistance movement, and asks how to carry forward the memory of those lost to state and gun violence.

A separate gallery is devoted to each of the titular themes. In a fourth gallery hangs the show’s anchor and highlight: Amy Sherald’s mesmerizing portrait of Taylor, made in the style for which she has become known since painting the former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait in 2018. Breonna stands in a pose that is strong but not confrontational, with a hand on her hip. She seems questioning, but at peace. The teal color and softness of the brushstrokes give her image an ethereal quality. Details of a golden cross charm, an engagement ring, and an earring ground her in her own identity. Glenn hung this work to be visible from every room; visitors weave in and out of the galleries leading up to it, bringing a sense of anticipation and gravity to the experience of finally facing it. Glenn had a difficult task setting a tone for this complicated and expansive exhibition; this curatorial choice was one of her strongest.

Amy Sherald, Breonna Taylor, 2020, oil on linen, 54 by 43 in.

Lorna Simpson’s photographic installation Same (1991) aims to acknowledge the connection between collective and individual experiences. I felt its impact. In four horizontal sets of four images each, two figures, both with their backs turned, are symbolically and literally connected by a stout braid. Their only discernible traits are Black skin and feminine bodies. Between the sets of frames are brief narratives of what unifies or distinguishes these women—mostly having been profiled or oppressed in some way. The language is subtle: “were let go for the same reasons,” “read the news account and knew it could have easily been them.” While the phrases suggest solidarity in the face of common instances of systemic oppression, the vagueness shows how erasure and the flattening of experience eliminate nuance in Black identity. A viewer’s identification with a statement that is simultaneously generalizing is the work’s strongest effect.

Beside Simpson’s work are pieces from Noel W. Anderson’s series “Altered Ebony” (2012–18). His work approaches erasure from a different angle. He selects pages from the titular Black magazine and prints or paints over parts of figures to comment on the limited scope of Black representation. His process is about the Black image as much as it is about how White violence has constrained the possibilities of the Black image. By following those constraints, Anderson noted, “we are re-traumatizing ourselves also by marginalizing ourselves.” If one of the exhibition’s focuses is on what ideals America promises to uphold, Anderson’s work, with its gaps and modifications, is a “precondition to the promise,” where “the promise is in what the viewer fills in and walks away with,” the artist explained. What viewers see—which depends on, for example, their identity, culture, and biases—affects what is possible in America.

Noel W. Anderson, Check the skin, 2012-18, erased Ebony magazine page, 13 by 10 in.

Simpson’s and Anderson’s works bring depth and nuance to the show’s overall conversation, speaking not only of the violence done to Black communities, but also of how Black communities are forced to participate in the many forms of violence committed against them. The wall label for Anderson’s work asks viewers to compare and contrast his work with Simpson’s. Here and throughout the show, the viewer actively expands or resists the weight of the dialogue as it builds.

Sculpture and sound played a significant role in establishing the emotional register of the exhibition. Sam Gilliam’s massive unstretched painting Carousel Form II (1969) was installed completely off the wall. The colorful fabric draped from the ceiling issued a vibrant call to reclaim expression. When Gilliam began producing these works during the civil rights era, he was asserting his voice through form and, by insisting on abstraction, challenging what a Black artist was expected to make. His work serves as a floating reminder that many methods of resistance are valid. The atmosphere was carefully balanced in the surrounding galleries: Bethany Collins’s The Star Spangled Banner (2021) played abolitionist versions of the national anthem to strike the heart with heaviness within a space about promise, while in the room for remembrance, Sweet Honey in the Rock’s 1995 song “Stay on the Battlefield” cast a spiritual spell over a video work by Jon-Sesrie Goff.

The local context for the exhibition was established midway through in the form of eight photographs depicting moments from the protests sparked by Taylor’s death, and honoring those murdered in the fight for justice, including Tyler Gerth and Travis Nagdy. It was one of the most immediate moments in the show—specifying place, people, time. I looked for more local work after, wanting to ground the conceptual work with more storytelling. Not all the stories were there, but those that were resonated like a protest chant.

“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” had me shaken up before I had even set foot in the city, the museum, or the galleries that house it. The exhibition honors Breonna Taylor, who was murdered in March 2020 by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department while resting in her home. It also addresses the larger fight forRead MoreArt in America, Reviews, amy sherald, Bethany Collins, Breonna Taylor, Jon Sesrie-Goff, Lorna Simpson, Noel W. Anderson, Sam GilliamARTnews.comRead More

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