Martin Luther King looms large as the beloved American civil rights figure, shot down in Memphis in 1968, before he turned forty. January 15th, his birthday, is the occasion for a national holiday. He is esteemed as a figure of the highest ethical standing, and ushered in permanent change based on his belief in nonviolent action in the face of racism. When King died in 1968, America was in vast confusion, torn by endemic prejudice and the Vietnam War. His murder underscored the extent to which bigotry was determined to suppress a new vision of society, one in which people would not be judged simply by the color of their skin. Today, a lot has changed, in large part because of King’s efforts, which were selfless and adversarial in the same moment. “eMeLe-K,” the show currently up at The Clemente, a Puerto Rican and Latino cultural center located on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side, comprises a group of works created by a diverse group of artists who are honoring the legacy of a man committed to social advance. Because The Clemente is well known not only as an art center but as a place dedicated to political discussion, it makes sense that this highly interesting–and committed–exhibition would find a home in its space. This kind of show occurs relatively rarely–today, American political art is oriented toward gender and minority sexualities. But the new face of cultural politics does not mean that older concerns should be pushed toward the margins. Racism dies hard in America, and art made about it retains its moral urgency.
The exhibition takes place in the corridor leading to The Clemente’s Latea theater, and on the walls of the theater space. Curated by Miguel Trelles and Alexis Mendoza, the show includes diverse images–paintings, woodcuts, photographs–that address King’s person and legacy. The images are not only elegiac, but also witness the misfortune of many people in America who must maintain strength while facing economic hardship. Carlos Barbarena’s Brown, a 2016 woodcut on rice paper, presents a middle-aged Latino man, wearing a moustache and goatee, with the a T-shirt bearing the phrase “BROWN CLOUD.” A calendar announces the day: November 8th. And a salt shaker has spilled salt on the table placed before the figure. The man’s gaze is proud and determined; it seems clear he is facing down any and all constraints based on stereotypes. The artist marks the man’s spirituality with a halo circling his head. No overt sign of rebellion occurs, nor is any direct historical reference made, but the aura of the image is clear–the psychic presence of pride may be all the marginalized and dispossessed can maintain in the face of indifference and antipathy (but in fact it is more than enough). Door (2014), by LMNOP, offers a mixed group of images, dominated by the picture of a small black child wearing a hat and a T-shirt while standing against a door covered with grafitti. On the T-shirt, a mention is made of Ferguson, the suburb outside St. Louis, where an unarmed black teenageer was shot by a white police officer in 2014. Another phrase refers to the the slogan of recent movement “Black lives matter.” The recent events referred to only underscore the ongoing need to confront the bleaker aspects of racism and its attendant violence.
Another image produced by LMNOP, Martin Luther King (2012), depicts King in a grand mode: with his right hand lifted high, and wearing an expression of conviction and visionary assuredness against a dark-blue background, King here embodies the leadership and bold determination necessary to confront hatred facing minorities in America. Given his gesture and open mouth, King is clearly speaking. His inspiration is available for all to see. The portrait is particularly successful because it does not actively idealize the man as a saint; instead, he comes across as a person of action, someone struggling with current social hindrances. Puerto Rican painter Juan Sanchez contributes a beautiful work entitled Para MLK (2010), which consists of dark but luminous circles surrounding a blue, circular net containing bright blue stars. In the center of the net we find a photo image of King in his final rest. Behind the picture of King lying in state, Juan has included a white cross–the self-evident symbol of Christianity, known not only for its transcendent beliefs but also for its willingness to support and succor the poor. The political implications of King’s message were never far away from his Christian beliefs. Indeed, they followed inexorably from his understanding of the Gospels. Sanchez, a wonderfully gifted painter, has mixed his praise for King with a palette and forms that intensify the beauty if not the actual message of King’s vision. He has done so abstractly, a decision that has resulted in a canvas of remarkable visual interest even as he commemorates the passing of a great man.
Sashalynillo’s woodcut, I Did Not Go To College To Be on Foodstamps (2015), presents a crowd of men with moustaches standing behind a central figure, who holds the placard bearing the words of the title. The men wear masks that give them the appearance of whiteness, but this is hard to accurately determine; they might be people of color wearing the masks in an attempt to fit in. Whatever the meaning of the masked crowd, it is clear that the group is generating an appalling aura, characterized by the kind of fierce alienation and violently macabre intentions we find in the pictures of James Ensor. So the feeling of the anger is palpable. A linocut from 2016, by the same artist, is entitled Black Lives Matter. A crowd of heads occupies the bottom of the composition; above them, we see words and phrases emblazoned on posters: “Black lives matter,” “Justice,” “Strange fruit still hangs.” The message could not be more clear; racially motivated violence must be done away with–immediately. Next to the placards, we see an American flag turned upside down, hanging from a pole. Traditionally a sign of grave disorder, the upside down flag functions as a troubling symbol of just how difficult our racial mores have become. Prints are an extremely direct medium, often associated with social protest. In the case of the two prints just described, the forcefulness of the imagery borders on the raw. But it can be said that savage times require a response equal in violence, given the transparent aggression of discrimination.
But art can only do so much in the face of deeply embedded attitudes among people different from those in the majority. Things do seem to be changing, but tokenism could well be responsible. The pictures in this show must be seen as a courageous response to troubles no one has yet been able to erase. King lost his life because of the radical implications of his argument that all persons are equal and deserve respect. Even so, there are things that can be done. Despite the difficulties we have in facing the demons inhabiting our bias, it is possible to bring them to the fore, where they can be considered and confronted. Art is very good at producing images that allow us to contemplate injustice from a relatively safe distance, so that the problem of prejudice can be tackled not only as an example of absolute monstrosity but also as the outwelling of the all-too-human penchant for discomfort in the face of the other.“eMeLe-K” gives us a chance to encounter an image of greatness, in the form of a man who lost his life struggling to amend a problem lying at the very base of American culture and history. Since bias continues to circle among us, we have a great need to stand up to it publicly, where it can be challenged and, hopefully, lessened. This is in no way easy to do, but the images in this show move us in the right direction.
– Jonathan Goodman