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Artist defends art installation depicting Michael Brown’s death

Two men look through a window at an art installation depicting the body of Michael Brown, made by artist Ti-Rock Moore, at Gallery Guichard in Chicago on July 14. (Andrew Nelles/Reuters)
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At an art gallery on Chicago’s South Side, a little-known artist has recreated Michael Brown’s death scene, a piece that was intended to ignite conversation but brought with it controversy. In the days since its opening, activists have called it “atrocious.” Commentators have said it “revictimizes” Brown. The gallery’s owners said they have received hate mail and death threats.

But the artist said the purpose of the exhibition, called “Confronting Truths: Wake Up!” at Gallery Guichard, is to call out racism and white privilege.

The piece titled “Angelitos Negros,” or black angels, shows a life-size mannequin of Brown’s body, still in a white T-shirt, khakis and flip-flops, face-down on the ground. Orange street cones stretch yellow police tape around the scene. A video showing Eartha Kitt singing “paint me some black angels now,” with tears rolling down her cheeks, plays in the background.

It evokes the moment last August on Ferguson’s Canfield Drive when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

“It’s very evocative. It commemorates a significant moment in present day history — a modern-day civil rights era,” the artist, who goes by Ti-Rock Moore, told The Washington Post in an interview. “For me, it’s symbolic of 400 years of suppression and dehumanization” of African Americans.

Much of the discussion centers on the artist — a middle-aged, white woman who calls herself an activist against “systemic, institutional racism.”

Moore, 56, will not reveal her real name or past life, other than to say she’s from the French Quarter of New Orleans, where her parents made a living as professional artists. She says she worked in the professional world most of her career and did not make a name in the art scene until summer 2014.

Her work has since appeared in galleries from Los Angeles to Brooklyn.

She took her “artist name” from 1950s and ’60s French Quarter artist Noel Rockmore, of whom her father spoke often. “Ti” means little or petite in Creole French and Haitian, so she named herself Ti-Rock Moore, or Rockmore junior.

Late last year, the Times-Picayune caught up with her at her art studio in the French Quarter, where her pieces were more of the same. A noose hung from a neon sign that read “Strange Fruit,” a nod to Billie Holiday’s song that alluded to lynching. A neon cross illuminated the words “White Privilege.” And 30 dummies dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes stood on risers.

“I’m not pretending that I’m coming from a point of view that I have experienced racism,” she told the newspaper at the time. “I’m coming from a point of view of completely being able to view privilege, white privilege, all the time in my world. And the power and the entitlement.”

Moore’s Chicago exhibit marks her first solo show, which opened July 10. But before she opened it, she said, she wrote a letter to Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, requesting permission to use their son’s likeness. McSpadden made an appearance last week, giving a speech and posing for a photo, though she asked that the piece depicting her son be covered while she was there.

Brown’s great-aunt, Sheila Morgan, said his story “needs to be told.”

“I think the world and the community need to understand what happened to Michael,” she told KMOV-TV. “If it happened to Michael, it could happen to anyone.”

But Michael Brown Sr., said he was not informed and did not consent. “I think it’s really disturbing, disgusting,” he told FOX2. “That picture is still in my head.”

“I really, really, really regret this,” Moore said. “I have a deep respect for both of them and deep respect for what their thoughts were about me doing this.”

[Black Americans now see race relations as nation’s most important problem]

Some expressed concerns that the artist, a white woman, had inserted herself into a conversation about the black experience. Culture critic Kirsten West Savali wrote for the Root that her reaction was to the artist “having her white hands on Michael Brown’s black body when he’s not here to protect himself.”

“Moore’s ‘art’ is not original; it is a crude plagiarism of Darren Wilson’s brutality, nothing more,” she wrote. “Memories of Brown’s desecrated body are already emblazoned across every home and every hood and every heart of every black person who has ever realized that this country never loved us at all.

“We do not need a ‘courageous’ white artist to sign her signature on the body of our dead to understand that.”

The gallery’s owners, Andre and Frances Guichard, who are black, said in a statement on Twitter that they knew the exhibition would be controversial.

“We were, and we remain, uncertain about how much any white person can truly understand and empathize with the black experience,” it read. “But because we know and respect this artist as a colleague, and have spent time discussing her motivations for this show with her, we accept the show. Now, this show is creating a very difficult, painful, but important dialogue.”

Moore said she wasn’t trying to recreate the scene of Brown’s death, but she was commemorating the four hours his body lay lifeless in the street.

“It’s risky being a white artist and doing this kind of art I do,” she said, explaining that she has been caught in a firestorm the past few days, facing backlash from “pro-Confederacy, white supremacists” who want her to take down her exhibition. She said she has also received some pushback from the African American community, but she attributes that to “misinformation.”

When her exhibition opened, some called it exploitation, worried she was profiting from Brown’s death. Indeed, she has 50 pieces at the Chicago gallery, many of which are for sale. One piece titled “Possession,” which shows a black man behind bars, carried a $5,500 price tag and sold, according to the Daily Beast.

“Angelitos Negros,” however, is not for sale, Moore said.

Moore said the gallery plans to donate 10 percent of the profits from the other pieces to a charity or a foundation that supports her cause.

When asked why she decided to depict Michael Brown’s death in the first place, the artist replied: “Art is a platform to speak the unspeakable.”