Less than a month after 49 people were killed and 53 wounded by a single gunman at a gay Latino party in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s gruesome murders by police officers were captured on video and widely circulated. The two recordings of Sterling’s death were made by Abdullah Muflahi, a local store owner, and Arthur Reed, an activist, while Castile’s was made in a lucid, terrifying account by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, under police duress as he died next to her. At least 5.4 million people have seen Reynolds’s video as of Saturday morning.
Documentation of violence against black people is nothing new: it has been disseminated through photography and video since the beginnings of both media. But the fact that the recent events were streamed instantaneously and made available for mass distribution on our handheld devices has galvanized a mass response, prompting protests throughout the country as Louisiana and Minnesota’s governors have sought a civil rights investigation from the Justice Department, and President Obama reminded the nation that “we’ve got some tough history and we haven’t gotten through all of that history yet.” And then on Thursday evening a sniper, who served in Afghanistan in the U.S. Army Reserve, killed five members of law enforcement during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.
While The Guardian has documented 136 black victims of U.S. police killings since the beginning of 2016 alone, the recent fraught images have become a rallying cry for politicians, activists, and artists. Some have responded via social media and Instagram, posting images of the 1930s flag the NAACP would fly outside of its New York City office to publicly announce a lynching. These posts not only make a connection between this moment and the history of state violence against black people in the U.S. but are also meant to remind us of the organization’s anti-lynching pamphlet campaign that often redeployed lynching photographs to reclaim the power of image making as a tool to intervene against state violence. Others have posted the black monochrome square that has appeared repeatedly after police killings, as if to say there are in fact no images that can capture the scale of this crisis and that the image of the black body in pain is part and parcel of how black people are policed. In other words: Can images do anything but aggravate the problem?
At their best, pictures—on Instagram or at a museum—can offer a space of both meditation and change where anger, fear, and ambivalence can coexist. Sometimes artists respond to documents of death by giving you another option than either looking away or staring at the gore of your news feed. At other times, the significance of an artwork itself can change, especially when it enters a collection or institution. As it moves from the original place it was made, it takes on added meanings, rubbing up against other artworks and adding to our public image bank as new events occur and time passes. Here are three works—all recent additions to MoMA’s collection—by contemporary artists who have responded to anti-black racism over the past 50-plus years.
All rights reserved / Steffani Jemison. Escaped Lunatic (excerpt). 2010–11.