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'Kin Killin' Kin' exhibit opens at the Reginald Lewis museum

Everywhere he went, the artist James Pate heard the same sentiment expressed.

"What came up repeatedly," he says, "is that we in the African-American community were putting the Ku Klux Klan out of business."

The Dayton, Ohio-based artist's provocative response was 13 large-scale black-and-white charcoal drawings and one full-color oil painting in which the artist depicts young, urban African-American men garbed in the Klan's traditional white robes and pointed hoods.

"Between 2007 and 2010," Pate says, "the number of black men who were killed nationwide was double the amount that were murdered between 1868 and 1968 — the Klan's most vicious period.

"It's sobering. Through this work, I'm throwing a tantrum."

The 14 artworks have been collected into a show called "Kin Killin' Kin" which is on view for the next three months at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

Pate says he understands the attractions of the gangsta lifestyle.

"I grew up in the projects of Cincinnati," he says. "At one point, I was a kid who aspired to sell drugs. I was fortunate that art captured my imagination and gave me direction."

In works with such titles as "R.I.P. African Americans II" it's the weapons, intentionally oversized and exaggerated, that dominate the frame: Glock pistols and AK-47 assault rifles. Bullets fly toward their targets framed in white boxes to emphasize their lethal nature.

The canvases are a jumble of fragmented scenes that jostle one another and shift back and forth in time.

"The longer you look at the images," says Wanda Draper, the Lewis' executive director, "the more you get out of them."

In "R.I.P," viewers follow the progression of yellow crime scene tape into chaos. "Your History II" juxtaposes contemporary violence with the heroism of civil rights-era protesters who staged a sit-in at a Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter. In a third work, "Defenders of the Corner," an African-American soldier who fought on the side of the Union Army in the Civil War morphs into a contemporary street corner criminal.

There's even an image of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in April 2015 after he was arrested and placed inside a police van. In the canvas, Gray is one of four gunmen in a circle, their arms interlocked, each holding a pistol aimed at one of his neighbors.

Curator Willis Bing Davis says that the image isn't meant to be a literal evocation of the circumstances of Gray's death. (When Gray was arrested, a knife, not a gun, was found clipped to his pants.)

Rather, he says, the lesson viewers are meant to absorb is about the self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

"It is too much," Davis says. "Young people almost become immune to it. When we first opened this show, we had no idea of the impact it would have."

Since the artworks were finished in 2011, the show has toured urban museums in nine cities. The institutions have found different ways to visually drive home the artist's point.

For instance, when "KKK" visited Memphis, Davis says, a giant clock mounted on the gallery wall counted down the time. Every few minutes, a bullet fell from the ceiling to the floor, representing the average time that elapses between shootings in the United States.

For the exhibits at Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History and at the Lewis, the names of the victims of gun violence are written on toe tags similar to those used to identify corpses, and were tied to a chain link fence. An open box of blank toe tags sits nearby the fence, and visitors are encouraged to add the names of gun victims they know personally to the wall.

On the other side of the room is a chalkboard that invites visitor response to the question, "What can you do to stop the violence?"

The artist himself provides a few clues.

The show includes one 3-foot-by-5-foot oil painting called "Turn of Endearment." Filled with vibrant shades of violet, fuchsia, lemon and orange, the collage shows a man with one arm thrown over the shoulders of a teenage boy. Other figures seem to be flinging away in disgust dice and bottles of pills.

Together, Davis says, the artworks are meant to evoke "sankofa," the African concept that holds that the key to building a successful future is found by contemplating the past.

"If you know who you are and whose you are, there are certain things you will not do," Davis says.

"We in this country have been remiss in our responsibility as educators. We have to find a way to reclaim the greatness of our youth."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Kin Killin' Kin" runs through Jan. 8, 2017, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Free. Call 443-263-1800 or go to lewismuseum.org.

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