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“Unmasked: The Anti-Lynching Exhibits of 1935 and Methods of Public Community Remembrance in Indiana”

PROJECT PROPOSAL

ALEX LICHTENSTEIN, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, INDIANA UNIVERSITY

RASUL MOWATT, PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN STUDIES AND LEISURE STUDIES, INDIANA UNIVERSITY

PHOEBE WOLFSKILL, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF AFRICAN AMERICAN AND AFRICAN DIASPORA STUDIES, INDIANA UNIVERSITY

Ida B. Wells, “Lynching, Our National Crime,” Address at the National Negro Congress, New York, June 1, 1909, https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/2017/03/09/mob-murder-in-a-christian-nation-june-1-1909/

In her 1909 speech, “Lynching, Our National Crime,” Ida B. Wells noted, “[Lynching] is a national crime and requires a national remedy.” Well over a hundred years later, the United States continues to want for a “remedy” for racial violence as well as a means to grapple with our history of racial terror. The Montgomery National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018, is the first national monument dedicated to educating viewers about the country’s history of lynching while formulating a visual and spatial means for commemorating its victims. The project we are working on seeks to join this conversation on a local level within the state of Indiana, beginning in Marion, Indiana, where a highly publicized lynching occurred in 1930. In collaboration with members of the Indiana University community, Indiana Wesleyan University, and teachers and activists working in Marion, we propose the art installation “Unmasked: The Anti-Lynching Exhibits of 1935 and Methods of Public Community Remembrance” as a means of engaging the broader public with the history of lynching and the ways in which visual art has been employed to raise awareness and push for antiracist political and social change from the 1930s to the present.

The installation is organized around our reimagining of two historic exhibitions held with the purpose of creating public awareness of lynching with the goal of passing federal legislation. The exhibition will revisit—and curate in tandem for public display—these two anti-lynching exhibitions. In 1935, the exhibits were held simultaneously in New York just two miles from one another. At the time, these competing displays deliberately spoke to different notions of the political function of critical artworks and aesthetics. This project will re-unite these exhibitions for the first time in a single gallery space accompanied by other multi-media materials that address the problem of lynching (and its representation) and/or employ motifs of racial violence. This show pairs historical concerns with ongoing reflections with the desire to recapture the contesting political spirit of the 1935 exhibitions and to illustrate the ability of art to raise significant questions of historical and current import. Furthermore, given current controversies about the politics of displaying racial violence and the black body, we hope to curate the show in such a way that it wrestles directly with this question: how can political art represent racial trauma that risks offending sympathetic viewers? How have the dynamics of this dilemma shifted between the New Deal era and our own?

LYNCHING CARTOON, 1934. "This is her first lynching." Cartoon, 1934, by Reginald Marsh. Granger Academic.

The goal of the exhibition is to use the legacy of the 1935 antilynching exhibits to provoke a broader discussion about art and politics, hate crimes, the resurgence of white supremacy, and teaching tolerance. Mindful of the repeated shooting of unarmed blacks by police, mass incarceration and punishment within a racially-biased criminal justice system, the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the new political voice given to neo-Confederates and other white supremacists, this exhibition is designed to prompt larger conversations about violence against African Americans and other minorities today.

Our initial research includes a bibliography of publications on the 1935 shows and the theme of lynching in visual art and culture more broadly. We have assembled a preliminary list of the nearly 100 artworks that appeared in the competing shows in 1935, as well as a list of works by preeminent African American modernists and contemporary artists that engage the theme of lynching in their art. We have secured initial funds to run two planning workshops in 2021-22 and we are currently seeking funds with an eye to mounting the initial installation in 2022-23 in Marion, Indiana, the site of an infamous lynching in 1930.

Catalogue cover for An Art Commentary on Lynching, featuring The Fugitive by John Steuart Curry.

Our long range goal is to find a museum willing to mount the full exhibition, based on the original artworks borrowed from other museums and galleries around the country, including the Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Columbus Museum of Art, and others.

Created by Nathan Draluck, April 8, 2021 © Alex Lichtenstein et al. 2021. All rights reserved.