The nightly news feels surreal these days. Executive orders enacted from the highest seat in the country have banned immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries and restarted construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which will carry crude oil through sacred land and endanger clean water. The Civil Rights page on whitehouse.gov has been replaced with a pledge to empower law enforcement over citizens. Alleged white supremacists now hold positions of power that can — and likely will — affect the way minorities are treated by citizens and the government itself.
Standing up against that kind of power can feel like facing down a tidal wave.
But as Dwanna Robertson, assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at Colorado College, says, "Sometimes 'force' is a force of power, but there also has to be the force of resistance that meets that. Speaking truth to power is always hard. It's always difficult and there's always risk."
The resistance grows in spite of these risks. Or, more so, because of them.
Robertson, a traditionally raised citizen of the Muscogee Nation, has helped organize the Second Annual Laura Padilla Colloquium — "State Violence: Race and Terror" at Colorado College, which brings in scholars and speakers from different backgrounds to raise awareness about how race, ethnicity and migration status affect people living in the United States.
Inspired by this concept, Jessica Hunter-Larsen, director of academic engagement and curator of interdisciplinary arts at Colorado College and the Fine Arts Center, worked alongside Joy Armstrong, the FAC's curator of modern and contemporary art, to create an exhibit that spoke to the intersection of race, ethnicity and government. What results is Force/Resistance, the first collaborative exhibition by CC and the FAC, which opens Feb. 25.
"Unfortunately it's an extremely timely issue," Hunter-Larsen says. "I wish it weren't. I wish we could look at this from a totally historical lens, but these incidents are still happening and we need to keep talking about them."
These incidents, as she puts it, encapsulate much of what half the country currently rallies against: the ongoing police murders that inspire the Black Lives Matter movement, the massive protest at Standing Rock, North Dakota, and the very governmental policies that seem to violate a basic tenant of this country — human rights. And that's just what makes the news. Every day, people in this country who are not white, Christian, or natural-born American citizens, face discrimination from all sides, often including the government.
Which is why Force/Resistance aims to get people thinking about the institutionalized racism and discrimination that manifests in violence — against protesters, against minority citizens and against ideas.
To address issues of race, Force/Resistance includes the work of Floyd D. Tunson and Dáreece Walker, two local artists whose featured work reflects the experience of blackness in the U.S.
Tunson, a local legend in his own right, has been a prominent, prolific and well-regarded voice in regional art for about 45 years. Graffiti artists El Mac and Fuse recently commemorated his contribution to the arts with a portrait mural on the side of the Manitou Art Center building, and the FAC hosted his stunning retrospective show, Son of Pop, in 2013. His career has been built upon works of all kinds, from startling large-scale, mixed-media abstracts to sculptural works to his Endangered series, pieces of which will be included in this exhibit.
The Endangered series began, Tunson says, in 1974, after his brother was shot and killed by police in Denver and Tunson created a portrait in his memory. As time went by, Tunson faced constant reminders of the tragedy in continued police violence. Furthermore, after becoming an art teacher at Palmer High School, he recognized the disproportionate number of African-American youths entering the criminal justice system.
It became clear that the only way many of these young people would make it in this world was with a strong support system, and many would still fall through the cracks.
So this series of portraits began and continued, capturing the faces of young black men, the most endangered members of our population who so often go ignored. Or, when the media does start paying attention, it does so only after the worst has happened.
"I don't know if I had inspiration so much as I had a need to express the voiceless," Tunson says. "Just being an African-American and witnessing what's going on with our youth is my inspiration."
There's a lot to be said for the fact that the same themes that influenced this series in the '70s are still present now, and Endangered is ongoing, "unfortunately," he says. The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to these problems, but just paying attention isn't enough.
The Endangered series is visually diverse, but some of the most striking images are Tunson's close-up portraits in monochrome acrylics. In some, the subject maintains eye-contact with the viewer, almost daring them to explain the context of the work — a context that it's impossible to relate without delving into the complex systems of racial inequality that make these Endangered pieces not just poignant, but necessary.
And that's exactly the point: force viewers to confront something that so many attempt to ignore. Non-black people do not like to be reminded that they are a part of systematic inequality, because it places responsibility on them to act. But according to many activists, the only way civil rights can move forward is with the help of people owning up to that responsibility — and accepting their accountability.
These portraits can "really help a viewer think about what an experience of inhabiting that space might be and develop a sense of empathy with another person's situation," Hunter-Larsen says of Tunson's work. "I think that if anything can move us through difficult times it is a radical sense of empathy."
She does not expect Force/Resistance to turn attendees into activists, necessarily, but she intends to encourage conversation. "It is a little bit more of a contemplative experience to walk through an exhibition and then look at work that talks about difficult topics. It can give you a space to react, but it's a little bit of a slower reaction than a rally or talk or lecture might provide."
Still, she acknowledges that social justice lies at the root of what she always wanted to accomplish with CC's IDEA Space, a vision that has been shared by the FAC in recent years as well as other local art institutions such as UCCS' Galleries of Contemporary Art (GOCA), which opened its downtown Black Power Tarot exhibit in January.
On March 3, the FAC, CC and GOCA will acknowledge that shared vision and come together for a "progressive First Friday experience," which will include spoken word poetry and viewings of both exhibits.
It's appropriate, then, that an artist featured in one of GOCA's more radical exhibits, PROTEST! (2014), will now take part in Force/Resistance as well.
Dáreece Walker, a UCCS alum who now attends the School of Visual Arts in New York City, became locally known for his series of works on cardboard, a series that also helped him gain admission to this prestigious grad school. The cardboard, he says, was chosen because it "seemed to speak to how I was feeling about being undervalued and feeling easily replaced, both as an artist and as a black American."
At that point in his life, he had just decided to pursue art full-time after dropping his business major, and he was still depressed from the transition. His personal struggle, combined with the struggle of the world around him, drove him to create portraiture atop a material so often used for protest, a "street material."
His pieces in Force/Resistance aren't the cardboard works that appeared in PROTEST! Rather, they're new acrylic paintings on vinyl — another material used as signage and, more to the point, memorial banners — depicting instances of police violence. These images captivate due to their contrast, black paint on white vinyl, but also for the technique he employs. He says he set out to work in fast strokes, to create a sense of immediacy.
"I had to express that there's a little bit of urgency in this," Walker says, "because it's part of our daily life. I wanted to connect with how rapidly a life can end and how moments begin and end, but also just how quickly a new story would turn out."
One particularly striking piece depicts two white police officers and one black individual. The officers are practically faceless, light brushstrokes suggesting their eyes, noses and mouths, but the look of pain on the black individual's face shows in exact detail. The black paint that drips from the individual and from the officers themselves appears like blood. It's visceral and suggestive, powerful in the way works like this need to be powerful.
"I would hear horror stories," Walker says, "and then when a new situation would occur — like Trayvon Martin — that really let me know that it might have been 10 years since the last time the news cared about this, but it's still here. It's still just as serious. We need to talk about this."
So he, too, hopes his work inspires conversation beyond the walls of the museum. By displaying works that give people common reference, he thinks the exhibit might help ease communication around difficult topics.
One of these difficult topics, the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock, inspired Professor Dwanna Robertson to contribute a native voice to the Force/Resistance exhibit: Force/Resistance: From Standing Rock to Colorado Springs, a documentary (aided by associate producers Han Sayles, Arielle Mari and Jessica Hunter-Larsen) that speaks with locals who attended the Standing Rock protests and looks at how the experience affected them. More than that, the documentary asks "how they can bring those same principles back here and effect change in their local community."
The Standing Rock protests have already made history, bringing together Native Americans, veterans and others from all walks of life and corners of the globe. The conflict has gained international media attention and mobilized people in a way that few causes have. And yet, Standing Rock just offers the most recent thread in this massive tapestry.
"Even though we think all of this [environmental justice] has just started happening with Standing Rock in the last year, these types of resistance efforts have been going on forever. Since 1492," Robertson says.
She explains that people do not think of the United States as land that was already occupied when white settlers arrived, so indigenous politics and the concept of indigenous homelands are complicated issues, and often invisible.
But Standing Rock shed light on indigenous issues, which makes Robertson hopeful for the future. She acknowledges it took a lot to get us here, but says, "We had come to a place where we didn't think we had to fight as strongly anymore, now we're reminded. And I hope this [exhibit] gives people hope. Gives them strength to know that we can all do this as long as we're together."
The documentary will be screened in the exhibit, alongside a piece of artwork by Bunky Echo-Hawk. This piece will be created during the colloquium when Echo-Hawk's father, Walter Echo-Hawk, gives his presentation about the rights of indigenous nations. Bunky Echo-Hawk's painting will respond to the themes and ideas that come up during that presentation, which means it will be rooted in all the issues Force/Resistance seeks to address.
By blending environmental justice with African-American activism, Force/Resistance feels timely as it looks ahead to the tumultuous landscape. But these acts of institutionalized violence have been happening for as long as there has been an institution. And, according to Robertson, until people start taking responsibility for changing society, exhibits like this will always be timely.
"All roads lead back to colonialism," Robertson says. "Decolonization is always timely. And that's what this is. It's all about decolonizing our thinking. It's all about understanding that we are all responsible. All of us. Not just the bad guys. And that we are responsible for one another and the Earth and the environment."
It is not enough anymore, Robertson says, to be an ally. Instead, she says marginalized groups need advocates and accomplices. She differentiates between the terms: Allies are on your side as long as they are not asked to risk anything personal. Advocates will put their resources at risk to speak on your behalf. Accomplices, on the other hand, will put their "body on the line" to fight institutionalized injustice, she says. And accomplices are the kinds of people she says we need.
"It's about us moving forward," she says. "We no longer have the luxury or the privilege of burying our heads in the sand."