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'Baltimore Rising' and the Role of Art in Settling History

An exhibit at the Maryland Institute College of Art explores the imagery surrounding Freddie Gray’s death by looking for context in the chaos that followed.

Tony Shore, "Hands Up Don't Shoot," 2015. (Courtesy the artist.)

One of the most important documents of the unrest that engulfed West Baltimore last year may not ever make it into the history books. It was a flier that circulated on Instagram on Monday, April 27, 2015, the same day as the funeral for Freddie Gray, the man whose death while in police custody turned the city inside out.

The meme depicted on the flier was certainly recognizable to high-schoolers. It was a call-to-action based on the film The Purge, the 2013 dystopian thriller in which all law is suspended for 12 hours. The idea behind such messages is typically that young people ought to gather at some predetermined spot and somehow enact the purge. It’s a hoax even more outlandish than a bomb threat during exams. Nevertheless, parents and authorities fall for the purge threat, across the country, with startling frequency.

In Baltimore, the call for a purge to start after school at Mondawmin Mall may have steeled the militarized police presence that clashed with demonstrators later that night. Authorities were on high alert that day; police had issued a warning about an inter-gang alliance that was planning to “take out” Baltimore officers. When law enforcement arrived in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, they showed up in riot gear. The decision to halt public transportation services in the area spawned crowds of listless teenagers with no way to get home. Gray’s funeral, which was held that day at a nearby church, served as the spark that consumed the city that night. By the time peaceful protesters converged on Mondawmin Mall, the place was already primed for violence.

Tony Shore, “Confrontation,” 2016. (Courtesy the artist).

This backstory is crucial for understanding Baltimore Rising, an art show on view at Maryland Institute College of Art, and moreover for thinking through the scenes of protest and violence that followed Gray’s death. The most popular image to circulate from that night, undoubtedly the vision of a burning CVS pharmacy, tells an incomplete story about what happened. Framing that single scene of violence, which spread over national television news, is critical to understanding how Baltimore processed Gray’s death.

The show, which includes work by 15 artists with ties to Baltimore, takes the long view of what happened on April 27. Curated by Tony Shore, who chairs the painting department at MICA, Baltimore Rising examines how events long preceding Gray’s death shaped the circumstances of the rioting that followed his funeral. Making sense of Gray’s death—or at least putting the tragedy into some kind of context—is work that goes on even after the headlines dwindle.

Shore’s own contributions to the show include a series of paintings based on photos from the “uprising” that night. (It’s unusual for a curator to include his own work in a show; this one started as a solo show for Shore and grew into something larger.) His works recreate news photos by the Baltimore City Paper photographer J.M. Giordano of standoffs between protesters and police. Shore eschews the most popular broadcast-news images of looting and violence for more nuanced glimpses, selecting pictures of balance between protesters and officers. “Confrontation” (2016) captures the youth of one demonstrator—not a man but a boy—in contrast to the severity of police wearing armor.

Baltimore Rising looks at the Gray protests through the lenses of painting, photography, sculpture, and even performance. One angle is a photo from Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling” (2015), a piece in which the artist unraveled the Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag into three piles of red, white, and blue cotton thread—a simple but evocative demonstration of the racist underpinnings of American history. Devin Allen’s black-and-white photographs from Baltimore’s unrest are artful, but they’re also journalistic; more interesting, at least in the context of this show, are pieces like “Elegy” (2010, an abstract painting) or “Black Cluster” (2015, an abstract sculpture), both by Shinique Smith. Instead of documentation of the riots, Smith’s work provides interpretation, the rare work of building history that art does best.

Shinique Smith, “Elegy,” 2010. (Courtesy the artist).

That’s not to say that photography has no place in a show like “Baltimore Rising.” Far from it. Some of the best works in the exhibition are photos by Nate Larson, an artist who showed extraordinary poise in the midst of turmoil. Larson shot photos of both demonstrators and officers in a stand-off in Sandtown-Winchester. For the show, the artist installed these works in a sequence along two walls. On one wall is a row of portraits of civilians, the photographs printed in small format and hung shoulder to shoulder. The wall facing opposite features a similar lineup of officers in riot gear.

That an artist thought forward to the work that portraiture could one day do to explain this moment—even as the moment was still unfolding—is a testament to the role that art plays in shaping our understanding of moments like this one. Larson’s portraits de-anonymize armored officers whose faces are shielded from the community; at the same time, the works humanize civilian demonstrators who were sometimes portrayed as lawless “thugs.”

Nate Larson, detail from “Holding That Line, Part One: Police Line From South to North, Blockading North Avenue at Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015.” (Courtesy the artist).

Nate Larson, detail from “Holding That Line, Part Two: Citizen Protection Line from North to South, on North Avenue at Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015.” (Courtesy the artist).

Several works in the show tackle systemic racism in Baltimore. Susan Waters-Eller’s multi-media work, “City Planning” (2016), is a broad landscape painting of a massive, empty, Robert Moses–esque highway; the city grid appears in collage underneath. Olivia Robinson contributes a quilt that depicts a redlined map of segregated Baltimore housing. On another quilt, one that replicates the legend of the redlining map, she has scrawled her own misgivings about the possibility of justice in a city where the history of white supremacy is still so clear in its neighborhoods. (Robinson is a white artist; the show is divided about half and half between white and black artists, making it a much more diverse presentation than many other visual-art shows involving race.)

Not everything in Baltimore Rising belongs. Paul Rucker’s “20 minutes of action in 20 years of life” (2016), a projection, casts a portrait of the former Stanford University student Brock Turner in the anonymous words of the victim he was convicted of sexually assaulting; the words are weighted in boldface to form a portrait of Turner, like a photo montage. It’s a total non-sequitur in this show, although it captures something of the way narratives outweigh facts in crises concerning social justice.  

The most haunting piece in the show is Logan Hicks’s “Freddie Gray’s Day” (2015), a textile painting of an empty Baltimore street. There’s no obvious memorial to Gray in the piece; it’s just a familiar night-time scene of rowhouses, during what appears to be a flurry or possibly a drizzle. The emptiness suggests Gray’s loss; the familiarity and timelessness of the scene stresses that his loss is felt by the entire city.

Baltimore is still processing the aftermath of Gray’s death. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby dropped the last of the long-shot trials she brought forward against six Baltimore Police Department officers involved in Gray’s death in July. The U.S. Department of Justice released the results of its investigation into the culture of racism in Baltimore law enforcement in August. For a city, it’s a different, almost abstract process compared to what Gray’s friends or family feel.. Art is a step in that public grieving process, one that can help a community understand a story that the media didn’t get right the first time.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.