Mercy in the Museum: Collection Tours [Video]

Throughout Fall 2020 the Block Museum welcomed online audiences to a special series of shared conversations, focusing on artworks from the collection that explore ideas of justice, race, and equity. [View our Just Mercy Project] These discussion-based lunchtime tours were led by Block staff and inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the One Book One Northwestern reading selection for the 2020-2021 school year. The series offered a frame for us to think thematically about works in our collection, and the chance to look closely, together at three extraordinary artworks.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Sum Follow (2019)

What do we mean when we talk about inequality in the context of human beings, rather than in the context of abstract values?

Rasheed asks us to question and reconsider processes and systems that are so familiar, so authoritative, that we may take their rationality to be a given. For me, one of the most striking things about the book “Just Mercy” was witnessing the sheer will it took for the author Bryan Stevenson to keep forging ahead in a system with multiple roadblocks that didn’t seem to have any reasonable logic.

In relation to this work, I have thought about this line dancing between the rows of circles, carefully negotiating a system and working against an outcome predetermined to lead to inequality. I’m reminded of the phrase, “desired inequality”. Inequality here is presumed, it is intentional, and it feels blind, irrational, and dangerous.

– Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate

Prentiss Taylor, Scottsboro Limited (1932)

It kind of inverts how we think of justice usually as being blind, as being impartial. Here justice has a way of seeing that’s racialized.

I mean, it’s such an important landmark case that really represents this history of injustice and racial politics in the judicial system. Nine men who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in March of 1931, they were arrested, taken to Scottsboro, Alabama, and within less than three weeks, they were all indicted, tried by all white juries, sentenced to death, and, I mean, it was termed in the 1930s, the shame of America….

We see nine figures, and this refers to the group of nine that was accused, and they’re huddled together very closely. They’re seated on top of a train, so the viewer’s perspective is looking slightly up. It’s a little, it’s got a little bit of a modernist inflection with the grouping of the figures, and that strong raking angle behind them. These telephone poles or electrical wires have some references, possibly lynching, which was a very real risk. Also they’re impending, because of their death sentence, they would have died by electrocution.

Corinne Granof, Academic Curator

Donna Ferrato, Women who killed in self-defense… (1990)

While these facts are staggering, it is stories themselves that give readers some proximity to the experiences of the people involved, perhaps serving as a more motivating call to action.

An imprisoned woman on the top bunk looks down from her cell and exchanges glances with a guard through the barriers. The two women aren’t talking, so the action is really happening through their gazes. The women in the cell here emerge from the dark shadows wearing light colors that are reduced to light in the photograph. The guard wears dark clothing that contrasts with the stark white background. And so, this lack of color and the washed-out details really keeps us focused on the bars of the cell and the human interaction at the center of this image. So, the title of the photograph is taken from a text written on the back: “Women who killed in self-defense serve three times longer “than the men who killed their wives.” So we might begin to ask ourselves, “What is the backstory of these two women in the cell? “Are they survivors of domestic violence? “Should they be in prison at all?”

Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial assiciate

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