For as long as I’ve been writing Culture Shock Art one of my biggest challenges involves whether I should write about work I have not seen in person. In order to effectively write a piece about a specific piece of art you have to see it in person, otherwise you cannot bring a reader into the process of experiencing the art. While this is true, I believe there is power in the second-hand account of a piece of art. A first hand description of art can influence later interpretations for those that cannot experience the work in the flesh. This week I saw a photo of “Disremembered”, by Doris Salcedo, a sculpture that illuminates the power of art to expose our blind spots. Appreciating art involves us confronting those blind spots to find deeper, personal meaning in a piece and within ourselves. “Disremembered” addresses the painful legacy of gun violence and the lingering emotions and isolation felt by family members lost in its wake. The gauzy, etherial, ghost-like appearance of the garment is a haunting reminder of lives lost and the shells of family members left behind.
Seeing images of “Disrememebered” on Wednesday immediately exposed the realities of how gun violence impacted my family recently. It has been a little over a year since the murder of one of my cousins, Inity Morrow. When she was a young girl her mother made the difficult decision to have her children raised by their Grandmothers. My close cousin Will lived with his maternal Grandmother in Northern California and Inity moved to Indianapolis, IN to live with her paternal Grandmother and as a result of this I lost touch with her. As siblings my cousins Will and Inity became closer in adulthood. Inity was preparing for a move to Atlanta to seek a new lease on life and amid the excitement and angst of making a major life change, one of her biggest supporters was her brother. She was so close to that new beginning and realizing new possibilities for her life, but a man with a gun had other plans for the lives of Inity and her grandmother as he killed them in their home. While the horror of this tragedy was directly suffered by Inity’s family in Indianapolis, the ripples of pain reverberated through her brother and eventually us. The pain that was most assuredly a part of me was conveniently buried along with my lost cousin and the memory of her life faded into a statistic as another tragic footnote in a politicized national debate over gun control. Just as my family’s contact with Inity faded many years ago when she moved away, the pain and guilt faded out of focus after her death. Disremembered exposed my blind spots of not fully grappling with the grief of her loss, how it affected my cousin Will and my guilt in realizing I was not a part of her life; these buried emotions came to surface upon hearing the news of police shootings and the recent massacre in Charleston last month. Despite the numerous conversations I had with people about Charleston South Carolina, I had so many lingering, unprocessed emotions about violence, forgiveness, denial, accountability and the power of symbols in history. It was difficult to put those feelings into words. Even though I was physically detached from the Charleston 9, it was impossible for me to be emotionally detached from the pain of their families. This tragedy illuminated the nation’s collective blind spots concerning racism and access to guns and it connected us to a level of pain that we either cannot process or choose to avoid. When we unpack these emotions, they have must have someplace to go. I think this speaks to the power of art to bring our emotion and empathy to the surface and the power of the written word to express that emotion. President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinkney was a powerful demonstration of the transformative power of words to allow us to process grief. As he directly exposed our collective blind spots on race and gun violence, he simultaneously provided a catharsis required for us to collectively move forward. “For too long we have been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.” ~President Barack Obama, Charleston In his call to action, the President encouraged us all to face the uncomfortable realities of prejudice and challenged us to do the hard work that lasting change requires. “It would be a betrayal of everything Pinkney stood for if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.” ~President Barack Obama, Charleston
One interesting feature of the etherial garments in “Disremembered” is that they are composed of thin, black sewing needles, a detail that is not immediately apparent in photographs of the piece. Neither the ghost of a painful memory, nor the legacy of tragedy do not simply fade without the specter of pain (visible and hidden). Healing occurs when we expose that pain and transform it into something new, positive and constructive.
Another piece from the Salcedo show at the Guggenheim is a memorial named “Plegaria Muda” (Mute Prayer). The sculptor transformed tables into makeshift graves representing lives lost to gun violence in anonymity. The inspiration for this memorial came to the artist after she visited women in Los Angeles who lost children to gun violence. Salcedo, who hails from Columbia was not immune to the tragedies of gun violence and immediately saw parallels between the Los Angeles mothers and mothers in Columbia who lost their loved ones in internal conflict. This memorial draws an important link between the tragedies of the past and our present realities. In Friday’s eulogy the President pointed out another blind spot. In tragic situations our eyes are forced open as we address extreme acts of violence that make media headlines, however there are countless lives lost to gun violence in the is nation that remain faceless and nameless. Plegaria Muda exposes this notion of “repressed phantom grief” and attempts to re-sensitize viewers to it.
While the work in Salcedo’s exhibit exposes painful tragedies, much like Obama’s eulogy, the blades of grass emerging from Plegaria Muda, give us a glimpse of life, promise, renewal and transformation. In memory of Inity Morrow, Julia Morrow, and the Charleston 9 Dedicated to the families living in the aftermath of gun violence.