Viewing the work of photographer Devin Allen, you might think you’re looking at scenes from the Civil Rights era. The Baltimore resident famously documented the 2015 protests in his hometown after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in police custody from a severe spinal injury. In Allen’s photos, the intensity of the crowd’s anger and exasperation is palpable, eerily reminiscent of the mid-1950s, and the police came at them just the same—with billy clubs, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
Allen’s images show Baltimore, but they could just as easily be from anywhere disenchanted and disenfranchised Americans have decided to fight back in the past few turbulent years. It’s for this reason that Amanda Hunt, assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, chose Allen’s stark, black-and-white photographs as a focal point for The Window and the Breaking of the Window, an exhibition featuring works of art inspired by protest, on view through early March.
The result is a diverse collection of referential, explicit, and abstract creations, some of which may be difficult to take in—but that’s the point.
The show is partly a product of Hunt’s own processing of political protest in America. Allen’s images are straightforward depictions, but Hunt’s real aim, she says, was to create a safe space where museumgoers could meditate on artwork that offers a range of interpretations of the subject matter: artists responding to, engaging in, and capturing dissent. The result is a diverse collection of referential, explicit, and abstract creations, some of which may be difficult to take in—but that’s the point.
“I hope they’ll be able to recognize themselves in some of the work, in some ways,” says Hunt. “Maybe even their own feelings about what’s impacting communities of color.”
Standouts include Deborah Grant’s painting of a camcorder with the words “56 Blows,” referencing the number of times Los Angeles police officers struck Rodney King on camera. There’s a portrait of Stephen Lawrence, a British man killed in a racially motivated attack in London in 1993, by Chris Ofili. The exhibition culls its title from a William Pope.L piece from his “skin set” series, in which the acclaimed visual and performance artist painted statements about skin color. The artwork, also included in the show, reads, “BLACK PEOPLE ARE THE WINDOW AND THE BREAKING OF THE WINDOW.”
“To speak to the violent nature of some of the images, or some of the reasons for which we are protesting currently across our country—it felt necessary to be up front about that in the title for the exhibition,” Hunt says. “But there’s also a bit of hopefulness in it as well, because of the implication that there is a cycle that can be broken.”
(Left) Deborah Grant 56 Blows from “Blackboard” series, 2003. Enamel and vinyl lettering on blackboard.
(Right) Dana C. Chandler, Jr What Amerika Means to the Black Man circa 1775-1970, n.d. Offset print.
(Left) EJ Hill Surrendered (A Harrowing Descent), 2016. Acrylic, collage, and photo transfer on birch panel.
(Right) Dave McKenzie Self-Portrait Piñata, 2002.Papier-mâché and crepe paper.
Photos by Sasha J. Mendez courtesy of Studio Museum
Hero Image: Devin Allen Untitled from “A Beautiful Ghetto” series, 2015. Chromogenic color print.