‘OFF WHITE’ Asks Us to Reckon With Quotidian Violence


“It has been a rough year,” begins a recent New York Times health explainer. “By now, our violence is down to a pattern, and there is a choreography to our reactions.” Headlined “What Is the Constant Cycle of Violent News Doing to Us?” the piece explores how the ceaseless flow of brutal images in the media can affect public mental health. Among the bits of advice offered by grief counselors and psychotherapists is the suggestion that viewers should consider taking a break from the routine of watching the news.

But it’s not enough to turn away from the churn of images; perhaps we need to suffer through it, to confront its truths. Or, at least, that’s the raw thesis thrumming through “OFF WHITE,” a searching, sometimes painful exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. Curated by Akintola Hanif, a photojournalist and the editor-in-chief of the photography magazine Hycide, the exhibition shines a floodlight on the harsh realities of African-American life, with works by eight different artists often taking the news as a source of inspiration.

One of the show’s most striking pieces is a diptych by Adrian Franks called 10 Shots for Help, which explores the 2013 death of former college football player Jonathan Ferrell, shot ten times and killed by a North Carolina police officer. (Ferrell had been in a car accident and was seeking help at a nearby house; the woman living there called the police instead of coming to his aid.) Franks juxtaposes two high-contrast images of Ferrell dressed in shirt and tie, his football jersey layered on top. The image to the left places his figure against an orange background with the word “help” and ten multicolored dots printed against his chest, while the image on the right sets him against a green background, with the same colorful dots against his face — only here, his face has been replaced with a shooting-range target. Together, the portraits recall the gazes of the woman and the cop, who each saw an innocent man as dangerous.

Some of the works are more meditative in tone. Jamel Shabazz’s photographic series Inside the Belly of the Beast (1995), for one, documents African Americans in prison facilities during the artist’s time as a correctional officer: The photographs are quite beautiful, possessed of a mundane stillness. And Khalik Allah’s sixty-minute video Field Niggas (2014) — about the people who live at the corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem and are constantly scrutinized and harassed by the police — is disjointed and dreamlike. These quieter pieces help make the case that the dehumanization of black men and women can start in the day-to-day.

But then there’s the six-minute video FTP (prejudice, politicians, police) by Hycide, which strings together archival footage of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross and of Emmett Till’s battered body with contemporary bystander videos documenting police brutality, most notably the strangling of Eric Garner and the shooting of Philando Castile (the latter filmed by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds). FTP, which stands for “film the police,” also includes clips of cops choosing not to use excessive force against white civilians posing serious threats to public safety. The shaky cellphone footage, coupled with a death-metal soundtrack, makes for a jarring picture of the disparate valuations American society accords to white and black bodies.

In the past few months, I’ve steered myself away from watching and obsessing over police shooting videos. Now, standing in the gallery space at MoCADA, I felt both discouraged and somewhat empowered. In artists’ hands, such images have been reappropriated, reimagined, and recontextualized. The resulting works don’t automatically alleviate the psychological trauma of viewing the originals. In fact, “OFF WHITE” is compassionate about the insurmountable task of processing either version; but admirably, it asks you not to look away.

80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn
Through November 6