≡ The way collectors ‘gift’ us with ‘the lynching photographs’ (or should they ever) ≡

On January 28th 2011 I attended a lecture by Anthony d’Offay, held at the Glasgow School of Art. d’Offay is an art dealer, collector and curator who is famous not only for the huge monetary funding of Joseph Beuys’ work (the thing for which I remembered him the most), but for the huge impact in the promotion of arts, in particular conceptual art. 

After the new millennium d’Offay made it into the headlines for two big events: 1) for the decision to close down all his galleries when they were at their heights; 2) for having sold his £125m art collection to the National Galleries of Scotland and to the Tate for a knockdown £26m. Follow the link if you’re interested in understanding why this is the act of an art dealer and not of a philanthropist.

Today his signature is probably better seen at the Artist Rooms. In the official site, the project is described as a gift:

“ARTIST ROOMS is a collection of international modern and contemporary art, established through one of the largest and most imaginative gifts of art ever made to museums in Britain. It is owned on behalf of the United Kingdom by the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate who together care for the Collection and arrange for its presentation across the country.”

Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t care less about his trading skills and I recognize his collection is amazing and very much worth seeing. The problem is that I attended that lecture in 2011 and since then I can’t retain anything else about him except for what was showed and the discussion that followed. I’ll explain: Anthony d’Offay’s lecture at the GSA was not only focused on his collection but on a particular aspect of it: a collection of 20th century photographs and documents (roughly from 1900 to 1971) about the struggle of black Americans for freedom, entitled Without Sanctuary, and showed in the form of a 30m film.

As I now try to track the origins of such a collection at first I get very confused. d’Offay’s online video has no mention other than “Without Sanctuary: Black Struggle in America”, and there is a website with the same name that presents a collection (by James Allen) of photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America. Anyway, d’Offay’s video is not quite as I remember it (I’ll refer to him as the author since there is no mention of an editor or video artist). For starters, a couple of photographs from the black community in the Cotton Fields, then photographs documenting segregation, and finally the set I remember well: the photographs of lynchings by Ku Klux Klan, echoing to the voice of Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, echoing!!… during 3 minutes (from 06:00 to 09:00; at the time it felt like it lasted for the entire film)). As Nina Simone cries through the poem, comparing rotten fruit to dead (black) bodies, images of lynchings fade in and fade out, zoom in and out of burnt (black) bodies, hanged (black) bodies, human (white) smiles and (white) jubilation.

These are followed by representations of white power and the civil rights fight from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Power that last the following 21 minutes! At the lecture, once the film was over, the discomfort was evident and it didn’t take long for a voice to erupt from the crowd criticizing the option of making a film such as this and showing such brutal imagery in melancholic way. The discussion was fierce. I remember leaving before it ended, because I felt sick, both because of the images as well as because of some arguments used by people defending the film.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag mentions the 68 gruesome lynching photographs collected by James Allen, exhibited in New York in 2000 and published under the name “Without Sanctuary”. She also asks the right questions:

«The lynching pictures tell us about human wickedness. About inhumanity. They force us to think about the extent of the evil unleashed specifically by racism. Intrinsic to the perpetration of this evil is the shamelessness of photographing it. The pictures were taken as souvenirs and made, some of them, into postcards; more than a few show grinning spectators, good churchgoing citizens as most of them had to be, posing for a camera with the backdrop of a naked, charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree. The display of these pictures makes us spectators, too.

What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel “bad”; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we the better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)?» (2003, pp.72-73)

I see a point in preserving memory of human history no matter how far long the events report to, but there is obviously no risk human kind forgets how inhuman it has always been. As Sontag also notes (somewhere): peace is the exception, not the rule. So why show us such violent images in an embellished way and under the tone of Nina Simone? I see absolutely no reason for that other than being distasteful and sensationalist. We know of the lynchings and what the black community has had to endure at the hands of the white supremacy. It’s still present tense, as Americans know well. We do not need to see it in the form of a photograph for the events to be believable. In fact, those photographs, over which the author chose to apply film effects, are tossed away into a distant dimension just because they are presented like that, as artifacts, as an object so contained in itself alienates the spectator.

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