Staying with the Struggle: Exhibition scholars reflect on studying anti-Black violence

Why would you want to be involved with this exhibition?

Why do you take on challenging material in your scholarship?

How do you support your well-being while researching issues related to anti-Black violence?

The Block Museum exhibition A Site of Struggle took over five years in planning – a long process in which the curators and advisors were emersed in research and discussion of the topic of anti-Black violence. As the exhibition developed, pressing questions of self-care were raised again and again by colleagues and potential audiences.

In response, exhibition curator, Janet Dees, sat down with members of her advisory team to address these questions directly. The resulting conversations provide first-person perspectives about the exhibition and how scholars in this field practice care related to their research. A version of these discussions is screened in the A Site of Struggle exhibition, offering visitors a direct window onto the perspectives of the exhibition’s creators, and those artists and scholars who commit their careers to this work.

Scholars Video in A Site of Struggle resource room

Sampada Aranke, Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

It is such a courageous and bold and big proposition to think about questions of anti-Black violence and how they are mediated through the visual in a long history that is unwieldy and unbound…. I was so excited about the idea of people being able to make connections and also be shaken by the ways that anti-lack violence in the US has depended upon the visual. Artists and cultural producers then make the visual the platform with which they resist that violence.

Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University and Curator of A Site of Struggle

Being a community has been really important for me. So engaging with other people, other artists, scholars, curators who have similar commitments and being able to talk to people who are in encountering these similar kind of difficult issues, either through their research or their lived experience has been really valuable in this process.

Leslie Harris, Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University

Sometimes care means just stepping away to get out of my head and back into my own body and my own space. Sometimes it means taking a walk in the fresh air and recognizing that people suffered and died and so I need to embrace a kind of joy in the fact that I don’t have to live that experience, that there are people who went through difficult things so that my ancestors, and I mean this in the broadest sense of that word, could be who they are. And so, I try to be joyful in the positive legacies that are left to me.

Alisa Swindell, Associate Curator of Photography, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, former Curatorial Research Associate, Block Museum of Art, Northwestern

I think that it is important to not shy away from things that make us uncomfortable, that it is important that we also acknowledge those histories. If we only deal with the things that are pleasant to us, the things that are pleasurable, the things that are pretty, then we lose the power of what art can do and we lose our chance to learn what has come before and to learn what we need to know so that hopefully we can do better in the future. We can know more and do better.

LaCharles Ward, Postdoctoral Fellow, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania 

I was always interested in how artists spoke back to the conditions of violence that were oftentimes endemic and systematic in the United States. And I think this exhibition shows that there’s ways that we can think about these various forms of anti-Blackness beyond the current moment. And I hope that visitors learn how these artists, as imaginative thinkers and theorists, illuminate what it means to imagine a life, to live, to make do, to just be in spite of, despite, because of, alongside anti-Black violence. And my hope is that we should take that and imagine what a different type of life would be for Black people in the United States.

About the A Site of Struggle Exhibition Advisors

The Block themes, content, and format of the exhibition were developed in consultation with an interdisciplinary group of established and emerging scholars and museum professionals, NU faculty and graduate students, connected by their investigations of American art, visual culture, and African Americans’ production and representation within these fields. Their collaboration was anchored by two convenings held over 2018-2019.

  • Sampada Aranke, Assistant Professor, Art History, Theory & Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • La Tanya S. Autry, Ph.D. candidate, Art History, University of Delaware, Cultural Organizer and Independent Curator, Black Liberation Center
  • Courtney Baker, Associate Professor of American Studies and Black Studies, Occidental College
  • Elisabeth Callihan, Head of Multi-Generational Learning, Minneapolis Institute of Art (M.I.A.) and co-founder of MASS Action (Museums as Sites for Social Action);
  • Bridget R. Cooks, Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies and Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine
  • Leslie Harris, Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University
  • Ross Jordan, Curatorial Manager, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
  • Noémi Michel, Visiting Scholar, Department of African American Studies, Northwestern University and Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Geneva
  • Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  • Kymberly Pinder, Ph.D., Provost & Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Massachusetts College of Art and Design; ( incoming Dean,  School of Art,  Yale University)
  • Maurita Poole, Ph.D., Director, Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries
  • Veronica Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin
  • Nicole Soukup, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, M.I.A.
  • Shawn Michelle Smith, Professor, Visual and Critical Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Lorelei Stewart, Director, Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • LaCharles Ward, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Center for Media at Risk, University of Pennsylvania
  • Mlondolozi Zondi, Ph.D. Candidate, Performance Studies, Northwestern University

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