Art Review: Collective Conscious: The Art of Social Change
By Nicole R. Fleetwood
The group exhibition Collective Conscious: The Art of Social Change at the African American Museum in Philadelphia features art by black artists born or based in Philadelphia, including Diane Allen, Lavett Ballard, Betty Leacraft, Tieshka K. Smith, Shawn Theodore, and Russell Craig, a formerly incarcerated man who has become an awarded solo artist, art educator, and social activist. For the exhibition, artists were selected by a jury of established artists, critics, and scholars. The group exhibit was produced with the AAMP Residency for Art and Social Change, which promotes artists of color in the region and expands community programming and involvement.
Curator Dejáy Duckett said that the theme of “collective conscious” emerged from common issues that concerned the works of artists selected. She notes that while artists in the show range in age across several decades (from 20s to 60s), they share deeply interwoven and overlapping concerns about the marginalization and erasure of black Philadelphians from official histories of the city and how such erasure continues through the current displacement of many of the city’s black residents due to gentrification, mass incarceration, and other political and economic forces.
Such intergenerational racial and regional consciousness provides a rich lens to consider the wide variety of media and styles used by the artists. Hanging on one wall is a quilt by textile and mixed media fiber artist Betty Leacraft that explores the vibrant community organizing of black Philadelphians as well as the historical displacement of the city’s black communities. The quilt incorporates black and white archival photographs of community events, protests, and everyday life along with maps of the city’s wards that are predominantly black and redlined neighborhoods. In the same gallery is a video and photographs of a street performance Visages of the Underground (2017) by Keir Johnston of Amber Art and Design in collaboration with Conrad Benner and Ernest Martinez. Visages of the Underground consists of site specific performances and audience engagement in areas of the city that serve as tense “contact zones” where the city’s diverse but polarized residents intersect.
Of particular note are several large, floor to ceiling, paintings by Russell Craig from his Rorschach series. Craig is a Philadelphia-based artist whose presence and the subject matter of his art represent a significant, but often under-represented—even invisible—population of the city: young black men incarcerated, paroled, or otherwise directly impacted by policing and prisons. Since his release from Graterford State Prison in 2013, Craig has worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia teaching mural making and other art workshops to youth and adults who are under some form of supervision by local or state authorities. He has created a growing body of work on mass incarceration and the racial profiling and criminalization of black people in the city and nationally. Craig is a recipient of the Agnes Gund/Ford Foundation’s newly inaugurated Art for Justice Grant, given to artists and organizations using art to examine mass incarceration and push for criminal justice reform.
The paintings are unframed and un-stretched canvases on which Craig has re-imagined Rorschach sketches on a much grander scale than what are you used in diagnostic evaluations. He uses animal blood that he collects from butcher houses in the city to create a deep red that evokes a raw viscerality, both captivating and frightening.
Craig’s series offer a commentary on the precarity of black life in which he combines his personal experiences as a child in the city’s foster care system and later youth detention center with recent cases of black people killed by police, such as Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile. Craig explains that when he was in the foster care system, he was subjected to the Rorschach test and was pathologized in ways that continue to mark him as he aged in the system. He uses this test to critique the racist interpretive measures that mental health experts and social workers use to manage poor and vulnerable black children who are in forms of state custody. Craig connects the way that he and other children have been subjugated by state agencies to other systems of violence against black people, in particular police violence. In one of his more haunting renditions, 10 year old Aiyana Jones, who was killed in her grandmother’s home in Detroit by police officers while she lay asleep on a sofa, glares out through the center of a Rorschach painting insisting upon her presence and that we as audiences recognize the violence inflicted upon her and other black people as routine, everyday practices.
At a time when the city is facing unprecedented changes of rising rents and a higher cost of living and also of criminal justice reform to lessen its incarcerated population and hopefully to return many of its incarcerated residents to their communities, Collective Conscious provides important narratives and visual representations of the long struggles and vibrancy of Philadelphia’s black communities that offer important lessons and tools to engage this current moment.
Through August 26, 2018
African American Museum of Philadelphia
About the author: Nicole R. Fleetwood is a writer, curator, and professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her most recent book is a study of art and visual culture in the era of mass incarceration.