Leslie Hewitt's art probes "the unfulfilled dreams of the civil rights era"

Collective Stance is a series of installations by critically acclaimed New York artist Leslie Hewitt that utilizes the mediums of film, photography and sculpture to explore the way we connect to and remember the Civil Rights Era. For two of the installations, Hewitt collaborated with award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year).

Critically acclaimed visual artist collaborated with Selma cinematographer

Leslie Hewitt: Collective Stance, 2016. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2016. All photos Toni Hafkenscheid. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

For nearly 10 years, I've been presenting various versions of a workshop on race and media representation. Last week, at a Black History Month conference organized by the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board for their high school students, I gave my presentation again, but this time was different.

This was the first time that students came into the room already well-informed, aware of the reference points and eager to imagine beyond what currently exists. They had discovered informative articles through the hashtag #Oscarssowhite, watched the film Selma at school and the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution on PBS after seeing it trending on Twitter. They had looked up all the references that informed Beyonce's video and Superbowl performance of "Formation" and the rallying cry Black Lives Matter was not a media debate but a defining statement of their high school years. 

Listening to them reference D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation and question the absence of anyone who looked like them in the Canadian film and television world, I thought back to when I was a child in the early '90s and it was cool to wear Malcolm X sweaters and know who Alvin Ailey was. I realized that right now, unlike when I began this work almost a decade ago, it has once again become cool to take a conscientious stand, to be well informed and to understand what can learned from the strategies of previous generations.

That last point is what makes the Power Plant's exhibit Leslie Hewitt: Collective Stance, an exploration of ways that we connect to and engage political memory, so timely.

Collective Stance is a series of installations by critically acclaimed New York artist Leslie Hewitt that utilizes the mediums of film, photography and sculpture to explore the way we connect to and remember the civil rights era. For two of the installations, Hewitt collaborated with award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year).

"It was affirming to meet another artist of colour who has the same fascination with a time period that we didn't physically participate in," Hewitt says, "but we feel its effect. Part of this project was trying to find a way to leave a visual marker that shows the distance between the now and then, but also leaves a visual trace of the way that our generation wonders about the unfulfilled dreams of the civil rights era."

For their work, Hewitt and Young travelled to Arkansas, Chicago and Memphis choosing locations to film that have particular significance to the civil rights era such as the First Baptist Church in Memphis where Ida B. Wells had her office and the Johnson Publishing headquarters in Chicago where Ebony and Jet magazines were published. While speaking on the phone in early February, Hewitt described the significance of visiting these sites "Ebony magazine in the mid-20th century was definitely responsible for in-depth, serious reporting on the conditions of black bodies, not only within the U.S. but in an international context. Just to be inside of that building, the aesthetics, the details, the architecture, the material of the building, the colour palette, all of those things were energizing."

The Johnson tower was designed by pioneering black architect John W. Moutoussamy. According to Slate, this made it the first major downtown building in Chicago designed and owned by black people in more than two centuries. Arthur Elrod and William Raiser designed the avant-garde interior with colourful, texture-rich, modernist patterns that the company left virtually unchanged since the tower opened.

"Imagining what it meant to walk into that office and what it meant to be in that kind of protective space — that's something I don't think I thought about until doing this piece. [The] civil rights [era], it wasn't just a horrible experience. There were spaces that were generative and protective and nurturing to people even in the space of adversity."

As fascinating as this history is, Hewitt and Young's installation is far from a foray into the facts and experiences of the building. Looking at the silent, 2-channel video installation made up of non-linear vignettes that is Stills (2015), I had no idea of the significance behind their location choices.  Hewitt describes their decision to provide the viewer with little to no contextual information.

"The film is not a documentary so the goal isn't to put pressure on historical data. It was more so a question: what else can we pull from the site? Is there something that's almost intangible in shooting in this architecture? Is it in the red of the carpet? Is it in the way that the light is hitting the surface that will maybe call up the sense of our shared historical memory or our historical imagination? Maybe it was very bold thinking that our piece could do that, but I think that's why we're artists. We're not historians. We wanted to approach history, but as artists."

The experience of not knowing was mildly frustrating, but that frustration was a discovery in and of itself. Typically after (and sometimes while) watching a movie that I have enjoyed, I look up everything about it: who was behind the camera, how did they go about casting, who wrote it, what has the reception been thus far. Here, I was forced to simply experience the images without the informational crutches that can arguably prevent one from being present within an experience. As Hewitt notes, "We're full of facts, we have Wikipedia, the internet gives us all the information we could ever want. But hopefully this is more about feeling. It should, I hope, pull up something that can't be captured through historical data."

Both of the installations Hewitt and Young worked on together, Untitled (Structures) and Stills (2015), require the viewer to closely examine moments that do not rely on a typical celebration or nostalgia of the civil rights era.

"Although I think that the piece that we worked on is very beautiful, it's also sad, it's melancholic, it has signs of decay. So it's complex. It's not only celebrating a feeling or a sense of accomplishment. It's also wondering, what's next. Is this enough?"

Here there are no images of marches, but there are individuals standing still and resolute. There is no footage of black children entering white schools but there are buildings black people once owned and occupied. There are no preachers at the pulpit, but there are people existing, breathing and living.

"We live in an image-saturated society. We're constantly reading images at such a rapid rate, so much so that we're not even fully aware of how it's affecting our subconscious," she explains.

"This work is slower. It's operating on a different frequency. This work slows down a person to pay attention to simple movements and gestures which the film celebrates. Taking a deep breath, blinking your eyes, all those involuntary things we take for granted are suspended."

Designing spaces where the viewer is challenged to experience images, sculptures and space from a range of geographically distinct perspectives is a recurring thread that runs throughout the installations. With each one, I had to situate myself in order to experience the work and each physical shift necessitated that I saw the images or sculptures differently.  Hewitt reveals that this movement and "curation of the periphery" was a key component for how viewers are meant to experience the installation.

"We started this piece looking at an archive, and it's an image archive, it's a flat space, but we wanted to make it moving — and not only moving like the moving image, but in terms of affect. And, how do you do that without moving our bodies' relationship to the space that we're in? It's about shifting perspectives — what happens when you have multiplicity instead of a singular view."

Leslie Hewitt: Collective Stance. The Power Plant, 231 Queens Quay W, Toronto. To May 15. Tue–Sun 10am-5pm; Thu 10am–8pm. Free. Both Leslie Hewitt and Bradford Young will be speaking at the Constructions of Time: Still and Moving Imagery Symposium on May 1st.

Watch Exhibitionists Sundays at 4:30pm (5 NT) on CBC.