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Sondheim Prize Finalists 2016: Theo Anthony's photographs and films dissect aggressive masculinity

Theo Anthony's "Peace in the Absence of War"
(Film Still)

A die-cut sticker of a woman peeking through a wall at the BMA scoffs at everybody ponderously thinking about the art on display and perhaps its subjects: mostly young men in helmets. You can sit and look at this sticker of a blue-eyed woman with fingernails painted pink and consider how vast is the white wall that it's stuck to, or think deeply about what universe she could be in behind the wall. You can also look at the sticker and laugh—it's the sole, playful outlier to photographer/videographer Theo Anthony's exhibition of intense photographs and offbeat mini-documentaries.

Anthony's investigations of race and masculinity take us from Baltimore during last year's uprising to the Democratic Republic of Congo—with stops at a high school football game, a weight lifting competition, and a monster truck derby in between. The majority of the Sondheim finalists this year focus on current events and social justice issues, but Anthony's work is perhaps the most poignant given its direct interaction with the events surrounding Freddie Gray's death and the Baltimore Uprising. His short film "Peace In the Absence of War" highlights the quiet moments when police and national media meander about, waiting for their opportunity to overreact and/or sensationalize black suffering. Previously, the film was scored by call-and-response chants from protests mixed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's opportunistic, post-uprising concert where they played archaic European and European-American classical music, but here the film is silent, making the mugging of reporters and the nervous facial expressions of police in riot gear even more menacing.

Nearby, a wall displays images from Anthony's portrait series of police in riot gear, with three different cops in the same uniform responding differently: The first image shows an officer with his riot mask flipped up and a hyper-vigilance telling of his youth on the force. The other two photographs show officers with their scuffed masks down, less willing to wear their fear on their faces for all to see. The light that bounces off their masks adds to the anonymity of the officers, as if their facial features aren't really defined; they look less like human beings and more like clean-shaven automatons perpetuating the police state. Near the photos of the three officers is a photo of a young boy in the Congo with a bucket on his head. His stare pulls you into the photograph, while his soft facial features remind you that he's still a child. One would think this young boy has been through and seen much more than these three officers combined.

As you look at the boy, you can see the three photographs of the officers reflected off the glass that protects the photo or out of the corner of your eye, as if the officers are antagonizing the boy, hinting at a long history of white terror that stretches back to colonization. Near that image is another from the Congo, of men and boys in the back of a truck, guns in hand, helmets on. In this view, these men mirror western desires of being G.I. Joe. Other pieces here are lighter, focusing on bodybuilding competitions, car racing, and high school football, suggesting the elements of American culture that encourage hypermasculinity and the oppressive mentality it introduces, illustrating the ways in which male bravado is but a thinly veiled attempt to disguise fear and trauma. And there again, at the start of Anthony's exhibit, is that woman peeking out, now so clearly, cruelly laughing at all these men and boys putting on airs about how tough they are.

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist show is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 31. City Paper will be posting reviews of all of the finalists leading up to the award announcement on July 9. For more information on the Sondheim awards, click here.

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