A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence debuts at the Block Museum of Art, Jan. 26-July 10, 2022

Five years in the planning, new exhibition stakes a claim on the power of the visual to make change


Originating at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art  A Site of Struggle explores how artists have engaged with the reality of anti-Black violence and its accompanying challenges of representation in the United States over a 100 + year period.

Images of African American suffering and death have constituted an enduring part of the nation’s cultural landscape, and the development of creative counterpoints to these images has been an ongoing concern for American artists. A Site of Struggle takes a new approach to looking at the intersection of race, violence, and art by investigating the varied strategies American artists have used to grapple with anti-Black violence, ranging from representation to abstraction and from literal to metaphorical. The exhibition focuses on works created between the 1890s and 2013—situating contemporary artistic practice within a longer history of American art and visual culture. It foregrounds African Americans as active shapers of visual culture and highlights how art has been used to protest, process, mourn, and memorialize anti-Black violence.

  “How can art history help inform our understanding of the deep roots of racial violence? From realism to abstraction, from direct to more subtle approaches, American artists have developed a century of tools and creative strategies to stand against enduring images of African American suffering and death. Contemporary artists taking on this subject are doing so within a long and rich history of American art  that has sought to contend with the realities of anti-Black violence.”


– Janet Dees, Exhibition Curator, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Among the artists included in A Site of Struggle are Laylah Ali (b.1968), George Bellows (1882-1925), Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Darryl Cowherd (b. 1940), Ernest Crichlow (1914-2005), Melvin Edwards (b. 1937), Theaster Gates (b. 1973), Ken Gonzales-Day (b. 1964), Norman Lewis (1909-1979), Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Howardena Pindelll (b. 1943), Carl and Karen Pope (b. 1961), Paul Rucker (b. 1968), Alison Saar (b. 1956), Lorna Simpson (b. 1960), Dox Thrash (1893-1965), Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953), Pat Ward Williams (b. 1948) and Hale Woodruff (American, 1900-1980).

After its debut at The Block, the exhibition will travel to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama (Aug. 12-Nov. 6, 2022), a city with a deep civil rights history and which currently acts as a national and international forum on racial injustice through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, among other institutions.

A Site of Struggle is curated by Janet Dees, the Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Block, with the assistance of Alisa Swindell, Associate Curator of Photography at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, formerly a curatorial research associate at The Block.

A Site of Struggle: Exhibition Partnerships

“The Block is committed to developing bold, meaningful and challenging projects that ask audiences to reconsider accepted narratives and search for new modes of understanding and active reflection. In its breadth of scholarly and community collaborations and support of the museum’s ongoing social justice initiatives, A Site of Struggle is one of the most important exhibitions the institution has ever undertaken.”

–  Lisa Corrin, The Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director

The Block Museum of Art has become known for developing exhibitions and projects that embody a collaborative methodology and that have brought about transformation within the institution and across the field. Reflecting the vision and values of The Block to connect visitors with essential but understudied art histories and voices, these projects have partnership at their core. A Site of Struggle, five years in development, builds on this legacy and The Block’s record of generating new scholarship in the field of American art. 

In the creation of A Site of Struggle, Dees convened a national group of established and emerging scholars and museum professionals, including Northwestern faculty, staff and students to consult on the themes, content and format of the exhibition. Critical discussions about the gallery installation of the exhibition centered around how to responsibly present this challenging material and offer a structure of care for audiences. These best practices include limiting the number of works in the space to provide visual and psychological rest; controlling the sight lines to the most graphic works; and offering numerous opportunities for respite and quiet reflection. A room devoted to additional resources will provide information on campus and community support and access to social justice organizations. 

      A key component of A Site of Struggle is the establishment of an active community advisory group in Evanston, Illinois, the home of Northwestern University and the first city in the U.S. to establish paid reparations. This cohort of intergenerational leaders working in social justice, education, and the arts in Evanston was formed last year and convenes regularly to develop exhibition-related programming and discussion guides, and to provide counsel, context and feedback on the exhibition and the role of The Block Museum in the community more broadly. 


A Site of Struggle: Exhibition Opening

Opening Performance
Saturday, January 29, 1PM
Josephine Louis Theater, 20 Arts Circle Drive

Mendi + Keith Obadike sonify data from Ida B. Wells’ 1895 publication, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, with chants and sounds generated from the dates of lynching contained in Wells’ text. This is the second work in Mendi + Keith’s Number Series (2015-present), a series of performances and sound installations that use numerical databases of violence (police harassment, lynchings statistics, and slave ship manifests) to generate sonic information.

Opening Conversation
Saturday, January 29, 2PM
Josephine Louis Theater, 20 Arts Circle Drive

Opening speakers include Northwestern’s Robin Means Coleman, professor and vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion, and Natasha Trethewey, professor and two-time former U.S. poet laureate as well as a discussion between curator Janet Dees and Courtney R. Baker, author of Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African-American Suffering and Death; Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston; and Carl and Karen Pope, exhibition artists.


A Site of Struggle: Exhibition Publication

Editor: Janet Dees
Price: $39.95 / £34.00 
ISBN: 9780691209272 
Published (US): Jan 25, 2022
Pages: 160
Size: 11 x 9 in.
Illus: 60 color illus.

A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence will be accompanied by a fully illustrated companion publication of the same title with major contributions by established and emerging scholars from the fields of African American studies, art history, communications and history. Co-published by The Block Museum of Art and Princeton University Press, the book features a foreword by Huey Copeland, and original essays by Sampada Aranke, Courtney R. Baker, Janet Dees, Leslie M. Harris and LaCharles Ward.  

Foregrounding the perspectives of African American cultural producers, this book examines three major questions: How are graphic portrayals of violence enlisted to protest horrors like lynchings? How have artists employed conceptual strategies and varying degrees of abstraction to avoid literal representations of violence? And how do artists explore violence through subtler engagements with the Black body?  The book’s essays offer new perspectives from established and emerging scholars working in the fields of African American studies, art history, communications, and history, providing the historical context for contemporary debates about its representation


A Site of Struggle: Exhibition Credits

Lead support for the exhibition is generously provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Major support is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The project is also supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bernstein Family Contemporary Art Fund, the Myers Foundations, The Block DEAI Fund and The Block Board of Advisors. Generous support is contributed by William Spiegel and Lisa Kadin, the Alumnae of Northwestern University, the David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council Agency and by Lynne Jacobs. The related publication is supported by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Sandra L. Riggs Publication Fund.

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