The Recorder – The World Keeps Turning with columnist Allen Woods: an artist responds to the insurrection
” . . . more often than not, art is a disruptive form, serving as a tool to change existing political and social realities. Inna Didenko, artist.
On January 15, 2022, the 93rd birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., I drove down I-91 on the canal in Holyoke to view what I believe to be a historic work in progress by Dr. Imo NseImeh at Pulp Gallery. Spawned by the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, I came away moved, grateful, and slightly disturbed.
Dr. Imeh identifies himself (https://imoimeh.com) as an artist, “scholar of African Diaspora art”, and in the essay “Hope of Shine”, “a black Christian which “can’t ignore” the naked hatred and violence of that time, including the powerful symbols of a Christian cross and a lynching gallows. These images are piling up on top of videos of George Floyd ‘slowly choking to death’ and the execution of Ahmed Arbery and others unarmed: The lack of a strong response from many white Christian religious leaders has brought Imeh to the brink of “spiritual homelessness”. ”
Large powerful images (most measuring 7ft by 7ft or more) in a small room created countless impressions and personal responses: I can provide a limited description of two. The first is historical context: the classic, immaculate construction of our Capitol building and White House was largely done by slave labor, hired out by the U.S. government.
Imeh reminds us of this fact (or enlightens us for the first time) by using the vivid, imaginary faces of the slaves as the ground beneath the Capitol area. This is a great irony and a blind spot for many white Americans: even the founding and creation of a nation with aspirations of “freedom and justice for all” depended entirely on the toxic institution of slavery and accepted it.
The second is the global and divisive response of true Christians to the tragedies unleashed by the lies of Donald Trump. Imeh makes his response visual in the “and I’ll be there with you” sign, the only image in the exhibit with a hint of color beyond black and white. The headline is the last big lie told that day by Donald Trump, resulting in the death of Army veteran Ashli Babbitt, among others. Imeh poses her body gracefully, like that of Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, but explains in his notes that he does not see her as a martyr and does not sympathize with her or her cause “even in the slightest”. His death is a tragedy: his sacrifice is “hollow” because it is “based on lies.”
But, as a Christian, he “pities her” in her “self-destruction” that has been “authorized” by Trump and others, a symbol demonstrating “the riddle of the Capitol Riots.” Raised as a Christian myself, I often agonized over the conflicting biblical maxims of Old Testament “eye for an eye” and New Testament “turning the other cheek”, embodied by leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela and MLK Jr..
I have repeatedly questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of nonviolence; marveling and amazed at the ability of religious family members to forgive those responsible for the deaths of loved ones, like those who spoke in court at Dylann Roof after slaughtering nine black people at a South Carolina church.
In my mind, the image of Babbit’s Imeh, dead from the riots, and the black faces dead or haunted by white supremacy at the heart of the movement, prove that “crying can be converted into protest”, as he hopes. .
The national media narrative is that America has faced a “report” on institutional racism. One definition of calculus is “calculating or estimating the quantity of something”. Others include steps to fix the problem. I think the former is the most applicable, because efforts to address it have drawn concerted backlash: banning the books, attacking critical race theory, and widespread efforts to bring back the franchise to the era of Jim Crow.
Combining her visual art with words, Imeh not only wants recognition of our individual and societal racial issues. He wants us to “thrive” within a “healthy body policy” that is “not limited to one type or group of people”. He doesn’t believe that we should “settle for anything less than the abundance that awaits us all in this life.”
I encourage you to view his works in person at Pulp in Holyoke through February 6, or online at his website or the gallery’s https://www.pulpholyoke.com.
Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary era mystery novel “The Sword and the Scabbard”, and resident of Greenfield. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at [email protected]