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  • In the Wake, a Procession
  • Cauleen Smith (bio)

Protest♢Celebration. Luxury♢Depression. Rage♢Humor. Fear♢Defiance. Humiliation♢Resolve. Poetry♢Death. Nihilism♢Hope. I arrange these affective states into pairs as a way of understanding and describing a kind of contemporary condition: When one finds herself eviscerated by the psychosocial-economic violence we see and feel inflicted on black people in the United States of America, it is possible to move through this world in a dazzlingly broken state.

It was by accident that I watched the video in which a Cleveland, Ohio police officer executed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. It appeared on my social media feed, and the boy was dead before I could scroll away. It broke me. Rage and despair emerged as the only voice I could find, the only platform from which I could speak. This was terrifying. For twenty years, I have devoted myself to making work that speculates on the possibilities for resisting oppression rather than ruminating on the daily damage of white supremacy. But my kind of work requires a willful optimism, which crumbled when that police officer murdered Samaria Rice's son. I found myself scrawling self-pitying mantras into my sketchbook:

Fear looks back at me.            Black Flesh.        I cannot be fixed.    I am holding my breath.    Leave me for the crows.    Camera, Pen, or Gun?My pathology is your profit.We were never meant to survive.    No wonder I go under.    Pigeons are black doves.    Rage blooms within me.I'm so black that I blind you.            STOPChappelle Rock Mooney Sykes Pryor… You don't hear me though …        I have nothing left.

Returning to these journal entries months later made it possible for me to see the power in grieving. I decided to amplify this power and push the notion of loss toward the terrible freedom experienced when one has nothing left to lose. Celebration♢Protest … Grief♢Beauty. And then I encountered Christina Sharpe's book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, which gave me a frame for imagining an artwork that offered a performative pathway through black peoples' collective reckoning with state-sanctioned violence toward a defiance, a resistance, and a public and visible assertion of love. I began turning these phrases into declarative banners modeled after the processional finery of Masonic Lodges, Haitian Vodou flags, and Catholic Requiems. I used the most luxurious textiles I could find. My crew [End Page 300] of seamsters willed the fussy fabrics into militant finery. We imagined them as garments. When we wrapped them around our bodies, they gave comfort and produced laughter.

This "In the Wake" series of banners was produced with the intent of orchestrating a procession through the snow-covered streets of Bronzeville, Chicago, carried by a gospel choir draped in specially designed choir robes. I commissioned visual artist and performer Avery R. Young to create a gospel song using the texts on the sixteen banners for the song lyrics. Alas, the winter of 2016–2017 went on record as the first snowless winter in forty years. So the procession instead happened in the meatpacking district of Manhattan on a sunny spring day. A group of youth who regularly attend art classes at the Whitney Museum of American Art became the banner-bearers.


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Figure 1.

Cauleen Smith, Camera, Pen, or Gun? 2017. Satin, poly-satin, silk-rayon velvet, indigo-dyed silk-rayon velvet, indigo-dyed silk satin, rayon-polyester ribbon, acrylic fabric paint, satin cord, poly-silk tassel, and sequins. 73 × 47 inches. Courtesy the Artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.


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Figure 2.

Cauleen Smith, I Am Holding My Breath. 2017. Satin, poly-satin, cotton, silk-rayon velvet, embroidery floss, acrylic fabric paint, poly-silk tassels, and sequins. 63 × 48½ inches. Courtesy the Artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

[End Page 301]


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Figure 3.

Cauleen Smith No Wonder I Go Under. 2017.

Satin, poly-satin, wool felt, indigo-dyed silk-rayon velvet, embroidery floss, acrylic fabric paint, satin cord, polyester fringe, cotton batting, and sequins. 68...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2381-4721
Print ISSN
2381-4705
Pages
pp. 300-303
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-07
Open Access
No
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