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Review: Nikita Gale explores the limits of understanding history in “1961” at {Poem 88}

Nikita Gale: Untitled single leaf diptych from book "1961"  (Photo by Jon Ciliberto, of the artist and { Poem 88}
An untitled diptych in Nikita Gale's "1961."

1961,” as in the title of Nikita Gale’s exhibition of photographs at {Poem 88} through October 13, was a strange year and a very long time ago even for those who lived through it. As a younger African-American artist who very much did not, Gale has approached the task of visual archeology with the historian’s basic realization that it is necessary to remember that its participants had no idea what 1962, much less 1968, would be like, and 2012 existed only in the vague imaginings of sci-fi books such as Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot.”

1961 was the year in which the artist’s mother was born, making Gale a second-generation beneficiary of some of the aspects of whatever future the upheavals of that era helped to shape. So she has set out to recover and represent (or re-present) what she can of the world that was altered by the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s, through a body of work that juxtaposes collages based on the police mug shots of the Freedom Riders arrested in 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi, with color slides taken that same year by an anonymous white family in White County (!), Georgia (assuming the slides stayed in the same county as the antiques store where Gale found them).

These visual slices of middle-class white folks’ daily life in the waning years of state-enforced segregation are captioned with poetically elusive text composed by Gale from phrases in two 1961 documents, one written by the lieutenant governor of Georgia (a speech defending segregation) and the other by the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who wrote a letter to Malcolm X (sent to him in care of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church) that found its way into the Georgia archives. Gale cannily doesn’t make these documents available, so we have no idea what they said.

This is art, not scholarship, so she’s not required to provide primary documents. Nevertheless, it might help to have a bit more cultural context than Gale has given, so here is my own reconstruction of some of the mind-set of the era.

Although the notion seemed wrongheaded to some even at the time, as the Civil War Centennial began in 1961, more than a few Southern whites felt that they were about to be crushed and destroyed a second time by overwhelming numbers and resources — a peril even more emotionally immediate than the fear of destruction by Russian missiles, which in 1961 were still in the missile silos of the distant Soviet Union rather than in nearby Cuba as they were during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. 

Gale’s creative interpretation of a fragment of visual evidence, the White County slides, manages to convey white Southerners’ generalized feeling of looming catastrophe lying just beneath the surface of a placid daily life defined by the just-ended Eisenhower era’s air of prosperity. She has placed this partial, often enigmatic (as in “are those photos of a high school homecoming weekend or what?”) glimpse of Southern white culture in 1961 alongside more easily interpreted documentary evidence of the idealistic fight for racial justice that so many ordinary whites interpreted as unwarranted aggression.

We know what the Freedom Riders thought, or told others that they thought; we don’t know for sure what these particular White County white folks were thinking as they posed with roses or went to the beach, but they were most likely among the plain people who weren’t bent on making history but believed that history was about to remake or unmake them. Given the news on television or in the day’s headlines, they probably feared the worst even as they tried to enjoy the best.

The slides contain such subjects as an anxious-looking cheerleader (probably thinking about the upcoming game rather than the aforementioned worries), accompanied by a caption that Gale decontextualizes directly from her source: “We have had a preview of what will happen.” A boy floating in an inner tube is captioned with the composite text “They admit that you don’t like the way that you can’t win.” It is uncertain whether the “you” in this made-up sentence is the boy and his white society or the protesters fighting for racial equality, but because the civil rights marchers believed that history as well as justice was on their side, we must assume that it’s the boy who dislikes the likelihood of being a loser.

Gale may think he can’t win in many ways. Given her interest in reconstructing scenarios that are indicated only by the most ambiguous of clues, she may see things in the boy’s expression and posture that I don’t, based on visual information in other photographs that she hasn’t included. Gale has stated that the captions she has created form an implicit story about the people in the photos, but her implied narrative is obscure, simply because it requires the prior possession of a context that is far from self-evident. The swimsuit-clad young woman scowling at the camera, captioned “People would no longer have to worry about you,” or the blurry birthday-party picture labeled “I must tell you quite frankly” are parts of a story that remains Gale’s private joke.

While the slides are presented unaltered except for the added captions, the mug shots are combined in a midcentury-modernist collage method that suggests how intertwined the protesters considered their destinies to be — “black and white together,” as the lyrics of their ubiquitous song had it and as the intermingled faces of the collages present it.

The overall look of Gale’s enterprise incorporates aspects of art circa 1961 — the rearranged words cut from photocopied typescripts, the photographs turned into symbol-laden collage — that seem chronologically appropriate to the subject matter. However, the relationship between the red and yellow dominating one wall (which almost seems to reference Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” of a few years later) and the visual archeology escapes me — unless the pun on “color theory” is appropriate, which I doubt. Josef Albers taught his color theory to such young Southerners as Robert Rauschenberg at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, but Black Mountain and Rauschenberg were both long gone by 1961, so that also seems irrelevant. I remain puzzled. 

Set between the photos that juxtapose White Countians and Freedom Riders, three equally large photographs look like homages to Mark Rothko (or to color-field painting, as someone else described them). Inquiry reveals that they are chromatically altered images of the impossibly complex construction with which Gale produced this series: a white-walled box, in which each successive mug shot collage was affixed to another photograph so as to obscure most of its content, while one of the White County slides was projected onto the floor of the box, directly in front of the photo-collage wall, by shining light through the sheet of glass on which the slide was laid above the wall.

It is incredibly inventive, echoing everything from Rauschenberg to Joseph Cornell, and is an apt metaphor for the contortions through which it is necessary to go in order to begin to reconstruct the experiential texture of history.

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