‘Our Duty to Fight’ brings Black Lives Matter to the art gallery

Since the release of the Laquan McDonald video, the Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated its ability to reform local government: the group’s public protests indisputably contributed to the firing of CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy and the defeat ofAnita Alvarez in the state’s attorney race this spring. But those who attend “Our Duty to Fight,” a new exhibit at Gallery 400, may be surprised to learn just how far-reaching the influence of BLM has become. Organized by Black Lives Matter Chicago, the show captures the scope and impetus of the movement with a mix of campaign material and original artwork. It’s both an archive of activist efforts and a call to action.

The first part of the exhibition displays items used during BLM protests and explains the various campaigns that black Chicago organizers have initiated in recent years. There’s a homemade “lock-on” tube that was used to link protesters’ arms during a May 2014 demonstration calling for a south-side trauma center. In a far corner hang three banners hand-painted with the names of police-torture survivors, carried by marchers in a February 2015 rally. Canvas lawn chairs used by the Dyett High Schoolhunger strikers last year are scattered throughout the gallery. The objects tend to be simple and unpretentious: campaign posters are handwritten on construction paper, and images circulated in a social-media campaign are drawn by Stateville Correctional Center inmate Joseph Dole, who’s currently serving a sentence of life without parole. Such pieces reveal just how much organizers have been able to accomplish with few financial or political resources.

The second half of the exhibit shows how far the movement—and Chicago—has yet to go in the fight for a society that values black lives. For it artists collaborated with the family members of nine Chicago-area residents killed by police to create original sculptures, video installations, photographs, and paintings.

After talking to the mother of Darius Pinex—a 27-year-old father of three who was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in 2011—artist Rhonda Wheatley built a “cloaking device” out of an old clock radio and crystals. According to the accompanying instruction manual, the cloaking device will “protect your unarmed children and loved ones from law enforcement officers who would without just cause inflict upon them bodily harm” by rendering them invisible in the event of a police attack. “We have to keep each other strong, ’cause there are so many days you just want to say to hell with it,” Darius’s mother, Gloria Pinex, told Wheatley. “But if you say that, you definitely won’t get no justice. . . . So we have to stand up and fight.”

“Our Duty to Fight” invites attendees to take their own place in the BLM movement. In one installation, visitors are encouraged to leave messages for the father of Flint Farmer—a 29-year-old killed by police in June 2011—in a gold alligator-skin box. Among the notes of solidarity, one reads: “Stay strong! The Revolution is happening now!”

As the deaths of Laquan McDonald and others fade from the news cycle, Chicagoans should remember that message. The revolution is here and, as “Our Duty to Fight” demonstrates, it’s stronger than ever.

Originally published in The Chicago Reader

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