There’s an ambivalence to a lot of the art in “Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham.” If there’s a commonality among the civil-rights-themed works by 21 contemporary artists at the University of Maryland’s Art Gallery, it might be this sentiment: We’ve come far since the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls, but we still have a long way to go.
That friction between aspiration and reality creates, at times, heat.
Archie Boston’s posterlike digital print “We’ve Come Too Far” charts the evolution of terms used by whites to describe blacks, from “slave” to “colored” to “African American,” with other names in between (including a notoriously offensive one). The last item on the list, however, isn’t a word at all but an image commonly used on handbills announcing fugitive slaves.
The metaphorical implication is clear. Though the institution of slavery may have ended, there are other forms of bondage, including the chain of a label.
Other works express similar tension. Luba Lukova’s “I Have a Dream” features a silhouetted figure of a placid Martin Luther King Jr., seated calmly as five police dogs strain against their leashes, snarling at him.
King’s metaphor of a dream pops up elsewhere, in the Jefferson Pinder video “Lazarus.” There, we watch as the artist tries, unsuccessfully, to start a broken-down car. Soon he gets a push from one, then another, then another helper, until the vehicle is racing down the street, propelled forward by many hands. In the end, however, it is only Pinder’s dream, and the car is still stuck where it started.
While watching the video (one of three powerful ones by Pinder, who used to be based in Washington), I caught a snippet of the spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved” coming from a nearby video installation by the husband-and-wife team Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. In the context of Pinder’s exercise in frustration, the resolute lyrics of the song take on an unintended double meaning.
McCallum and Tarry’s work, “Within Our Gates,” features a montage of footage from the sometimes violent history of the civil rights movement. It also generates heat, not least because the struggle it depicts feels like an ongoing one.
Three contemporary photographic double-portraits by Julie Moos — depicting Birmingham domestics and their employers — introduce a layer of fascinating ambiguity, not ambivalence. Based on skin color and clothing, it isn’t immediately obvious who’s who, although in 1963 it almost certainly would have been. Moos’s photos actually do depict progress.
Photos from Karina Aguilera Skvirsky’s “North-East-South” series, which revisits the sites of racial lynchings, reveal something else entirely — that ghosts do exist, if only in art.
One of the more creative ways of reclaiming the past is on view on Michael Paul Britto’s “African Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic),” which remakes the KKK’s iconic hooded uniform in brightly patterned African fabric. It’s a way of declaring ownership of something that has been historically used to oppress and intimidate, like the N-word.
Britto’s work is elegant in its simplicity, but it packs a punch.
At the heart of “Mutuality” is the hot-button issue of race. As the show makes clear, it’s almost as much a dream today as it was in King’s time to imagine that we live in a world where skin color doesn’t matter.
That’s changing. And the artists here do acknowledge that, albeit with complexity and nuance. We still live in a black and white world, they seem to say, but it’s one that’s increasingly colored by shades of gray.
Bradley McCallum is white; his wife, Jacqueline Tarry, is black. Since 1998, the artists have worked collaboratively, creating provocative, socially conscious projects that sometimes involve performance.
Among their works on view in “Network of Mutuality” is a custom-designed wallpaper featuring images of the couple’s blood cells and a pattern created by fusing their respective family crests. It’s an offshoot of “Exchange,” a 2007 video documenting a performance in which the artists received simultaneous transfusions of each other’s blood. (Yes, they share the same blood type.)
Along with the video, the wallpaper is an allusion to the “one drop rule,” which historically classified an American as black as long as he or she had any African ancestry whatsoever.