Down for the Cause?: “What’s Going On” at Boyd | Satellite

Lydia Y. Nichols visits an exhibition on Julia Street dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement and wonders how political movements should be represented in galleries.

Installation view of “What’s Going On” at Boyd | Satellite, New Orleans. Photo by Dale Gunnoe.

I do not believe that white people are inherently incapable of facilitating conversations about the impact of white supremacy on black and brown lives. In fact, it is because I want white people to be having these conversations that I criticize them when their attempts are haphazard or merely self-congratulatory. Boyd | Satellite’s “What’s Going On” bills itself as “an homage to Black Lives Matter,” but its choices don’t reflect an understanding of the movement or its commitment to meaningful change.

To its credit, the exhibition includes some great pieces by individual artists. The late Jeffrey Cook’s sculpture Song of Silence, 1996, memorializes two friends lost to gun violence with upward-facing, cast-iron guns, the barrels of which have been wrapped in black twine and cloth—the tools of death preserved, stripped of their power, now rendered sacred objects. John Isiah Walton’s painting The Farm, 2016, depicts a white man on horseback looming over a black man picking cotton at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, highlighting the transtemporal exploitation of black labor from plantation to prison. These and other scenes of anti-black violence are literally reflected on the graphite surface of a work by Ron Bechet, which is etched with statistics of unemployment, income inequality, juvenile arrests, and housing insecurity, all relayed in second person, mapping these realities on to the viewer and the gallery.

But “What’s Going On” suffers from a lack of curatorial vision and intentionality that detracts from the potential power of these works. A faint reference to Marvin Gaye and the superficial dedication to black resistance in the exhibition’s title don’t provide enough context, making the pieces feel like disconnected jabs at sentimentality. An homage to Black Lives Matter is, by necessity, an argument for the value of black life, and the curation of the show should reflect this.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement was started and has largely been led by black women, black female artists have been excluded from “What’s Going On.” When asked if the work of any black women was being shown, gallery owner Ginette Bone responded, as though it had never crossed her mind, “Now that you mention it, no.” Local Black Lives Matter activists, many of whom are also women, hadn’t been contacted either.

Furthermore, Boyd | Satellite has centered white artists in the exhibition’s promotional materials and in the physical placement of their works in the exhibition. The flyer for the exhibition only shows gallery owner Blake Boyd’s photograph Swat, 2008, and, in the reminder email for the opening, only Ti-Rock Moore’s works are distinguishable. Moore’s pieces are also the largest in the show: the three eight-by-twelve-foot panels of Possession, 2014; her now-infamous installation Angelitos Negros, 2015; and the Jeff Koons-esque Cracka Please, 2015, a collaboration with the artist Cypher. Only one black artist, photographer L. Kasimu Harris, has more than one piece in the show.

By not dedicating enough space and attention to the works of the black artists, the exhibition undermines the ethos of Black Lives Matter and devalues the works of the black artists that are included, while placing the white artists and gallery owners on a pedestal for their choice to take a stand. Just because a gallery on Julia Street is highlighting an important subject doesn’t mean that the exhibition actually addresses the issues at hand. I’m not convinced that black lives matter to Boyd | Satellite beyond the visibility and publicity that their pain brings to the gallery.

Editor's Note

“What’s Going On” is on view through May 3, 2016, at Boyd | Satellite (440 Julia Street) in New Orleans.