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“Can’t you see it? Can’t you feel it? / It’s all in the air / I can’t stand the pressure much longer / Somebody say a prayer”

– Nina Simone (lyrics from “Mississippi Goddam”, 1964)

Upon the first meeting of Nina Simone and Martin Luther King Jr., before proceeding to shake Dr. King’s outstretched hand, Simone sternly told him “I’m not nonviolent.” Dr. King responded with warmth, “Oh, that’s OK, Sister. You don’t have to be”, and they shook hands.

Non Non Violence, a group presentation featuring Andrew Schoultz, Bayete Ross Smith, Cate White, Cheryl Pope, Diedrick Brackens, Kenneth P. Green Sr., Libby Black, Margot Rada, Mario Ayala, Nery Gabriel Lemus, Nick Van Woert, Patrick Martinez, Sofie Ramos and Terry Powers.

Non Non Violence is not a direct response to any specific incident of violence towards people of color and queer individuals, perpetrated by the state or otherwise. It is a larger response to how it feels to persist amidst an increasingly volatile and oppressive climate of hatred and mistrust–some of us persisting at much greater risk due to pigmentation, bodily inscription, economic standing, or otherwise. Non Non Violence can also be seen as a companion ideology to that of the Black Panthers’ “self defense by any means necessary.” That ideology does not incite or desire violence in any form, but recognizes that if those intended to protect and serve aren’t fulfilling their duties–or are in fact creating greater terror within the community–the community must protect its own through solidarity.

We believe that solidarity can take the form of artistic practice and gallery exhibition, as a means of reflecting, reinterpreting, and ultimately trying to heal. As Simone put it in “Mississippi Goddam”, her 1964 response to the murder of activist Medger Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham a year prior, “I can’t stand the pressure much longer / somebody say a prayer”. As artists, translators, and re-interpreters of the worlds around us, perhaps it is our duty to be the ones who say the prayer?

A few weeks ago, in response to the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, artist Dread Scott raised a flag outside Jack Shainman gallery in New York as part of the first artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms. Scott’s flag read, “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday”, a reinterpretation of a NAACP flag from the 1920s, and it quickly became a beacon for mourners in search of hope, meaning, and acknowledgement in the wake of brutality. The piece also became a lightning rod for conservative media outlets that saw it as an overreaching attack on police and were unable to stomach the historical ties that Scott was making. The flag ultimately met the same demise as that of the NAACP’s decades earlier, as the gallery’s landlord threatened to sue if the flag wasn’t removed, citing a lease agreement that prohibited any exterior signage.

Did Shainman’s landlord expect some form of escalation given the reactions of Fox News and its cohorts, prioritizing paranoid fears over painful, yet healing conversations? Is preemptive discipline an appropriate reaction to fears of violence?  When unjustified murders committed by those intended to protect and serve are acquitted in a court of law, they too are tragically reduced to a form of discipline. In light of this response to Scott’s flag, should such poignant examples of artistic practice be seen as an act of non-non-violence, furthering important discussions while also potentially inciting discipline?  Shouldn’t this be an example of the kind of work to which we aspire? Can the art we make both be the prayer that Nina Simone pleaded for while also embodying the non-non-violent attitude she espoused as an artist and activist?

Perhaps the concerns of this show are best articulated and grounded within a local history of radicalism and opposition by Kenneth P. Green Sr., an Oakland-based artist who took iconic images of the Black Panther Party while working for the Oakland Tribune during the Panther’s rise in the 1960s through their fall in the 1980s. We are reminded of how the Panthers capitalized on their second-amendment right to bear arms, albeit more as symbolic markers of power and equality than weapons in their own right. This exercise of supposed liberties ultimately led to the organization’s targeted demise, much as the tragic murders of Sterling and Castile recall in the present.

The flag serves as another potent place for investigation, with its multivalent symbolism, significances, and identifiers. Sofie Ramos’ flag piece, obscured by a coat of flat black paint, suggests a burial shroud. Rada strips the often-whimsical pop-art connotations of soft sculpture by transforming a flag into a noose, speaking to the tragedy of lynching as an American tradition that we all must own, and, like the flag, collectively identify with. And at the further reaches of representation, Diedrick Brackens weaves bands of color, both appropriating the language of the flag and its symbolic function in a much less direct way.  Brackens once spoke to his work as “High Queer Americana,” simultaneously unearthing connections through color, composition, and materiality to the Rainbow Flag, Kente cloth, southern quiltwork, and European tapestries. Non Non Violence is a testament to the power of visual communication, of artistic representation, and of the limits of verbal language, in responding to the tragedies of our day, and our collective hopes for tomorrow.