White supremacy, Confederate mythology: MICA art exhibit critiques this legacy

First, there was the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in August in Charlottesville, Va.

And then, days later, the overnight removal of four Confederate statues in Baltimore.

With that, Lauren Adams was moved to act. A daughter of the South — born in North Carolina, raised on tales of Gen. Robert E. Lee — she has been busy creating art to critique America’s history of white supremacy and uplift black women who have fought for equality.

“One of the things that I really wanted to make clear with this project is that the monuments are the work of white women and white men telling the stories — often myths — about American history that we all share,” said the Maryland Institute College of Art painting faculty member, whose work has long explored history, slavery, labor and political events. The resulting exhibit, “Germinal,” looks at “how monuments get made, who makes them, what stories are being told, and how they function as propaganda,” she said.

Adams has filled MICA’s Pinkard Gallery with digital prints, elaborate paintings and decorated oysters and bricks sourced from throughout the state, all featuring recreated images of historical artifacts and moments throughout history that comment on white supremacy, the Confederacy, suffrage and the ways that white feminist causes have often marginalized black female activism.

“I would actually be worried if I didn't offend some white people,” she said.

Back to that night in August, when crews swept in to move the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Confederate Women’s Monument, the Robert E. Lee and Thomas. J. “Stonewall” Jackson Monument and the Roger B. Taney Monument.

“The removal of the Confederate monuments here in Baltimore made me feel as an artist that I had a sort of space that I needed to reconcile my understanding of why these monuments were here in the first place and why they were removed,” she said.

“There's a real deficit in how white people tell our own stories and our history. I think a lot of white people don't understand where they came from and the America they created. … Many white people don't understand the trauma and terror that was enacted upon people,” she said.

In her exhibit, six colorful paintings address the history of white culture and supremacy and feature silhouettes of the four removed Confederate statues; and refers to the people responsible for the monuments and developing false narratives around why the statues existed. The supporters were often white women, said Adams, whose artworks aren’t outwardly provocative at first sight. They challenge viewers to take a deeper look or to refer to the wall tags, which will reveal the disturbing histories that inspired them.

Adams’ painting of the silhouette of the Confederate Women’s monument, which was sculpted by former MICA instructor and alumnus J. Maxwell Miller and funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy,features transposed painted images of the Brown Veil Club, or Monument Street Girls, a group that rallied together and sewed uniforms for local Baltimore men who joined the Confederate Army, along with a recreated Harper’s Weekly magazine photo that shows a woman dressed in an era-appropriate dress, with the title “A Female Rebel in Baltimore: An Everyday Scene” (the word “rebel” refers to the woman’s support or involvement with the Confederacy).

A collection of five digital prints on archival paper, titled “We Know What Happened and We Know Who Had the Whip” (a quote by African-American author James Baldwin), feature a collage of illustrations and text found in a former slave autobiography, images of the hands of Confederate Civil War female spies, and propaganda written by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s (Adams said she was careful to not show the victims of violence in the works, so as to not “other” or ostracize people of color).

Adams also amplifies the stories of black female activists, from the 18th century to the present in her installation, titled "No, I do not weep at the world. I'm too busy sharpening my oyster knife," a quote by author Zora Neale Hurston.

“I felt like if I was going to be making a huge body of work critiquing white supremacy, that it would be fair to also involve a celebration of the people who have worked for the things that we should be promoting and celebrating,” Adams said.

Across from the paintings hang oyster shells, sourced from the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore where Harriet Tubman lived. Each features a painted portrait of a black female activist, like educator Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American major-party presidential candidate; and Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. They’re framed by prints of eating utensils collected from the Tubman household.

Several bricks, collected from around the city and painted with patterns important to African-American women, are also included in the installation. There are vibrant patterns created by African-American women spanning from the 19th century, including the pattern of a dress Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer had worn when she was beaten and jailed for organizing in the black community.

Christine Manganaro, a MICA humanistic studies faculty member and historian who contributed an essay to the exhibit, said Adams’ work is just as much about the past as it is “how we remember those things and who gets to tell stories about them and the relevant prominence of those figures,” said Manganaro, not to mention how the past has contemporary ramifications.

Cara Ober, founder and editor-in-chief of the publication BmoreArt, said “Germinal” is consistent with Adams’ other works, which are often deeply-researched commentary on important topics, but are also pleasing to the eye — a combination that allows viewers to decide how deeply they want to go into the works.

“She manages to discuss these problems and make it beautiful,” said Ober, but there’s more than meets the eye.

“Everything she does is like going down this deep wormhole and you can get lost in all the density of the research that she does,” she said.

Sheila Gaskins, artist and co-founder of local arts organization Artpartheid, which aims to address segregation in the local arts community, hasn’t seen the exhibit, but said Adams’ concept seems sincere.

“I know that a lot of people believe white people shouldn't be commenting about anything, especially black pain or black trauma. However in this case, I believe since she is expressing herself and not trying to sugarcoat or not trying to duck or forget these atrocities, I say more power to her. … We have to look at things differently. We have to relearn each other. We have to relearn history and we can’t keep doing the same old same old, because that is not working, nor has it ever worked,” said Gaskins, who is teaching a course at the arts school that addresses white supremacy in the art world.

“If this young lady is taking some history, putting it on the oppressor and making them be accountable for it in art, that’s dope. … We need more shining the light on the oppressor scenario, because we've been constantly blaming the victim, and it’s been reharming” them.

It has been Adams’ goal to create a work that is “very much about trying to explore and make connections with the ways in which white supremacy has functioned in visual culture,” she said. It can be difficult for many white people to understand “because it is status quo.”

“Whiteness is dominant culture. Engaging in the visual culture of whiteness is particularly difficult because most people don’t see it for what it is.”

Adams has also grappled with her own family history as a white American in the creation of “Germinal.”

Raised on a pig farm in North Carolina, “I grew up on the history and fallacies of the Confederacy all my life,” she said, adding that documents revealed there was slave ownership on her father’s side in the early 1800s. Parts of American history were often suppressed, and figures like Lee were widely discussed, while those who worked toward racial equality were not. Inaccuracies, or what Adams refers to as “Lost Cause myths,” were often perpetuated, including that slavery was a benevolent improvement for enslaved peoples and their descendants.

“It makes me angry that I didn't learn about Harriet Tubman before the myths of the Confederacy,” she said. Thus, Adams said, “I feel like I have a job to do to promote and tell.

“Just in August, Charlottesville happened. Neo-Confederate ideology is here. It's with us, and it's very important that we understand how it functions, where it came from, and it's work we have to do, and I say ‘we’ as in, like, the white people,” she said.

“We have a lot of corrective work to do to make reparations within ourselves and for ourselves to understand our own history,” she said.

The removal of monuments is not the ultimate solution to moving forward as a society, but it is a sign, she said, of progress.

“Germinal” runs through March 13, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. MICA’s Pinkard Gallery, Bunting Center, 1401 W. Mt. Royal Ave. A reception will take place 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Feb. 15. Artist Lauren Adams will discuss her exhibition in a gallery talk at 5 p.m. March 5. mica.edu.

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the birthplace of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. She was born In Mississippi. The Sun regrets the error.
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