Freedom of Expression

Is Torkwase Dyson's abstract recount of racial violence a missed opportunity?

In 1919: Black Water, artist Torkwase Dyson sets the scene of a historic civil rights violation in Chicago, but uses abstraction instead of realism to communicate her vision. (Nicholas Knight)

Torkwase Dyson’s 1919: Black Water, on display at Columbia GSAPP’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery through December 14th, is an inscrutable meditation on an incident of racial violence that took place in Chicago on a hot summer’s day in July 1919: the killing of a black 17-year-old named Eugene Williams on a Lake Michigan beachfront by a white man throwing rocks. Represented in the form of abstract paintings, geometric sculptures, and ink drawings, Williams’ story becomes a framing narrative for Dyson’s installations, which combine expressionist, minimalist, process art, and postminimalist elements in the manner of Mark Rothko, Dan Graham, Theaster Gates, or Nari Ward.

Dyson describes her projects as “spatial systems that build upon the architectural typologies that people have used to liberate themselves.” But this is not social practice art or urban interventionism. There’s no evident intention to interact with or build a community, educate a group, or communicate a didactic message. As the accompanying exhibition pamphlet discusses in an engaging conversation with architectural historian Mabel O. Wilson, the works are at least partly meant to function as abstract ciphers for the re-imagination of architectural space through black experience. Deciphering that code for practical uses might require an advanced Ivy League degree.

Dyson tends to fixate on sites of trauma in black history, seeking the potential for liberation within spaces that otherwise appear to lack all potential for agency: Henry “Box” Brown, who freed himself from enslavement by having himself mailed in a crate to the north, or Samuel Osborne, a janitor at Colby College who earned the school’s dedication by exemplifying an upright moral code. In the case of 1919: Black Water, the redemption emerges from an experience of pleasure-seeking and invention turned tragic: the fabrication of a boat to create a group space of joy, interrupted by racial violence.

The story behind the show is compelling. In the summer of 1919, Eugene Williams and his friends had constructed a makeshift raft to carry them to a small island on the shores of Lake Michigan near 25th Street, in between the two unofficially segregated sides of the waterfront. There they were free to swim and play away from the crowds. It was a summer of heightened racial tension: The black population had more than doubled in Chicago during the preceding decade—the beginning of the Great Migration of six million African-Americans from the south. Competition for jobs had intensified at the nearby stockyards at the end of World War I and white supremacists had been increasingly fomenting hatred.

The teens had apparently got caught in the middle, accidentally crossing an invisible boundary between the informally segregated areas. A group of white men began throwing rocks at them; as Williams ducked in the water and resurfaced, he was hit in the head, going under and drowning. The police neglected to arrest the rock-thrower, instead arresting a black man following a complaint by a white person. An explosion of violence ensued. In the following week, police killed seven black men; mobs and individual gunmen murdered 16 blacks and 15 whites; more than 500 others suffered from injuries; mobs burned more than 1,000 black families out of their homes.



A mass of black string congealed with black acrylic hangs on a wooden bar against a blue background with a geometric abstraction above (Pilot), possibly invoking a blue sky mingling with its reflection in the water, a raft floating on top, a black body bleeding from the head, and maybe, sinking below. Thick black acrylic paint and graphite on canvases suggest a line of polluted water (Just Above and Just Below; Place, Raft, and Drift), and slices of brass bisecting canvases evoke segregated division of space, the surface of the water, and the horizon (Plantationocene; Being-Seeing-Drifting). A few geometric figures appear on canvases that resemble towers or antennae (Hot Cold; Extraction Abstracting). On the gallery floor, shiny black plexiglass tetrahedrons with voids on some sides (Black Shoreline) reference the reflection of the water, which gain energy from the presence of gallery visitors.

The absence of figurative representations of Williams, the raft, or the crowds after the drowning—though historical images do appear in the catalog—recalls the protest a few years ago of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial. Schutz had portrayed the open casket of Emmett Till, a young black teen lynched in an incident of racial terror. His mother insisted on an open casket so everyone could see what was done to her son, producing a shocking image of brutality that spurred the civil rights movement. Did it do violence to his memory to represent his broken body? Was Schutz making common cause or exploiting Till’s suffering?

In this case, the inverse question might apply: why isn’t Williams represented more powerfully rather than rendered in abstraction? Is it a missed opportunity not to deploy figurative tools to animate Williams’ story, bring it to light, propel it into the present, deploy it to inform policies, use it for more than personal expression? Or is the freedom to be a black expressionist a worthy end in itself, our desire to see his body exploitative, and art that exhorts politically tedious and doomed to failure anyway?

“These systems also consider infrastructure and the environment to create a visual amalgamation that recognizes the ways that black people move through, inhabit, cleave and form space,” Dyson is cited as saying the catalog, describing her nomenclature of representation as “black compositional thought.” Often Dyson uses dancers accompanying installations to animate them with exuberant gestures, and the presence of performers might make this rhetoric seem less overblown. If these works constitute a kind of expressive freedom grounded in black narrative and experience, they operate within the exclusive prison-house of the institutional contemporary art and academic architecture world, its markets, nonprofits, grants, and formalist language games.

It’s a project worthy of poststructural critique to seek liberation even within the most repressive situations. As with the collapse of the New Museum’s Ideas City program in the Bronx, it can be challenging to reconcile the sustained intellectual discourse with the urgent, viscerally felt problems of the world: lack of control over space and governance, being unable to afford a place to live or to find adequately paid work, and abstract financial forces determining the fate of your community.

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