Reclaiming History | Hunter Museum of American Art 7.0.33-0+deb9u12

Reclaiming History

The Ed Johnson Memorial by artist Jerome Meadows memorializes racial violence in our area. Many other African American and Indigenous artists have created works that examine personal or communal incidences of oppression, aggression, or supremacism. This guide offers a few examples from the Hunter Museum collection click the titles to learn more about the artworks.

Hank Willis Thomas, Jr.

Public Enemy (Black and Gold I)

I think images shape the world, because reality is not a fixed thing, it’s a perception, and that perception is shaped by the dominant perspective of the people of power. That’s why you can have very different truths in different households and in different parts of the world, and people go to war over these truths. The ways in which photography shapes these perceptions of the truth is massive, because it’s through these images that we learn and decide who is valuable, whose lives are worth preserving, celebrating, and protecting, and what is important.

– Hank Willis Thomas

This image can only be seen when light is shone on the photograph. While the title may lead to expectations of an image of a vicious criminal, when light shines directly on it we see that there is a young boy marching being followed by gun wielding officers. This leads to the question of who is the public enemy. The medium itself serves as a reminder that racism is only seen when light is shone upon it.


Noel W. Anderson

Hands Up

Upraised hands can be read as symbols of greeting, or of religious fervor or of fear, as is often the case when African American hands are held up in anticipation of violent actions by police officers. This same gesture has also been reclaimed by protesters when “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” became a rallying cry of solidarity and a call for reform. Juxtaposing historic images of an 18th century Dogon sculpture, the outstretched hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an appropriation of an image taken during the 1995 Million Man March alongside a pair of handcuffed hands, Noel W. Anderson asks us to consider a multiplicity of readings and meanings. Here, Anderson explores the “hands up” gesture through a number of moments, ranging from political to submissive.


Lorna Simpson


By mixing seemingly objective black and white photographs with enigmatic text, Lorna Simpson invites viewers to question how history has traditionally been written. The images of a dark-skinned woman’s mouth and collarbone, a South Carolina smokehouse that resembles historic slave quarters, and a coil of braided hair are presented like displays from a history museum or textbook. However, the connections between these images and the numbering of hours, years, bricks, and braids are impossible to precisely pin down. Simpson turns the supposedly neutral act of counting into a subjective recounting of the past, evoking Black bodies and labor that have too often been erased from American history.


Whitfield Lovell


Using old black and white photographs of anonymous subjects, Whitfield Lovell pays tribute to his African American ancestors whose histories have often been erased. Lovell found a picture of this woman at a flea market. Although she is not known to the artist, the woman represents the many female ancestors whose strength and vision for the future nurtured future generations. The objects in the jars on the shelf below, such as locks of Black hair and coins from the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, are signifiers of events in the artist’s life and of cultural experiences shared by many African Americans.


Kay WalkingStick

We’re Still Dancing/Taos Variation

My present paintings of mountains and sea are vistas of memory — our America the beautiful. They are meant to glorify our land and honor those people who first lived upon it.

– Kay WalkingStick

Kay WalkingStick, one of the best-known Cherokee painters today, was not involved with the Cherokee community until she was a young adult. As a child she lived in a primarily white community with her mother, who encouraged her to be proud of her heritage. As she got older, she sought to learn more and ultimately dedicated her life to celebrating Indigenous traditions and their lands. The left panel of the painting celebrates nature and the land. On the right, the legs that are “still dancing” are reminders of the presence of Native American communities living on the land that was and continues to be theirs. In this way the artist celebrates not only the history, but the present and future, of peoples who have been displaced and oppressed but continue to thrive and nurture the land that is rightfully theirs.


For a family resource and educator guide to discuss the Ed Johnson Memorial and racial violence, click here.

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