BRONZEVILLE — When Andre Guichard unveiled the "Confronting Truths: Wake Up!" art installation at his gallery last week, he knew it would be controversial. With dozens of visceral, often abstract representations of racism and black disempowerment, the exhibition was bound to turn heads.
But the responses he and New Orleans-based artist Ti-Rock Moore have gotten — including international media attention and phoned-in death threats — was beyond anything either could have imagined.
Many onlookers fixated on the centerpiece of the installation, a life-size recreation of the crime scene in Ferguson, Mo. where Michael Brown, a black teen shot by a white police officer, lay dead. Complete with a mannequin wearing half-pulled-down pants, evidence markers and a strewn St. Louis Cardinals cap, the piece disturbed some activists, and outright disgusted others.
But "at least 85 percent" of the gallery's visitors, Guichard said, had positive things to say about the exhibit. And many of those who felt otherwise, he said, may have missed the point.
"This is not trying to make some kind of point about Michael Brown or law enforcement," Guichard said. "It's about humanity...It's about seeing on the news that someone got shot and realizing that it was a human being, not someone you can dismiss as a 'thug.' "
Guichard said he and Moore reached out to Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, for permission before the exhibition's unveiling. McSpadden visited the gallery on Friday, Guichard said, and praised its message. But Brown's father, Michael Brown Sr., didn't like that his son's likeness was on display, telling a Fox station in St. Louis, "I would really like them to take it down. I think it's really disturbing and disgusting."
Guichard responded, "We didn't know the complexity of the dynamic between the mother and father...once we got her blessing, we felt OK moving forward with it. We did reach out to him to apologize, and we invited him to come see the exhibit and speak with us about it, but he hasn't responded."
But Michael Brown Sr. said the exhibit "just brought the whole thing back to me" and said the artists should have asked him for permission before the exhibit was unveiled.
Almost all the exhibition's criticism, Guichard said, has come from people who read about it "through the pinhole of the Ferguson exhibit," instead of coming to see all 50 exhibits in person.
The exhibits, spread across the small art gallery on 47th Street, range from tongue-in-cheek to head-scratching to horrifying. They included a life-size huddle of Klansmen draped in a confederate flag, a stack of Saltine boxes titled "Cracka Please," and a looping video of former President George W. Bush's famous "heckuva job" gaffe above a cross covered in 452 racial epithets.
It was Moore's acute focus on social issues, Guichard said, that led him to initially reach out to her. He first saw one of her exhibits, titled "Possession," in New Orleans. Now hanging at the Gallery Guichard, the piece shows black silhouettes behind prison bars made of dollar bill rolls.
"It really spoke to me, just because of the statistics when it comes to black males incarcerated in this country," Guichard said. "I immediately fell in love with her activism, the way she expresses how different cultures experience racism."
It took more than a year for the two to plan the exhibition, all leading up to its July 9 unveiling, which Guichard called a "firestorm" of controversy. Specifically, some have taken issue with Moore, a white artist, making comments on white supremacy and black victimization.
But to Matthew Delacroix, who came from suburban North Chicago to see the exhibit Tuesday, the artist's race didn't take away from art's value.
"I think people will always find a reason to criticize an outsider looking in, but at the same time, an outsider can provide perspective," said Delacroix, who teaches history at Malcolm X College. "I think this exhibit does exactly what it's supposed to do — it shocks, and it informs. A good exhibit needs no words."
Guichard said the exhibition has attracted a large number of Chicagoans, many of them from Bronzeville, and overall they've been supportive. He's also seen people travel to see the gallery from all over the country, including "droves" of people from St. Louis.
Despite the criticism and the controversy, Guichard called his hectic week a success.
"So far this has done exactly what it was designed to do, which is to continue the conversation about race," Guichard said. "It may not be a pleasant conversation, but even if the comments are bad, it's a dialogue. And that's what makes it fulfilling."
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