It has been just a little over a year since I last went to the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, aka The Hurston. The museum rarely offers any literature about the exhibitions, their web page has not been updated since 2012, and they could use better gallery lighting, but they do not charge any admission fee, it is all by donation. The museum is a small and humble establishment that only has two exhibitions yearly. Located in Eatonville, a small town just north of Orlando, the museum brings current dialogs from our culture better than the Orlando Museum of Art. The town is embedded with American history, such as the first incorporated African American settlement community in the United States and the writer, Zora Neal Hurston. Towns with this type of reputation tend to capitalize on it history, but this does not deter this little museum from educating and taking risks in showing art that is current versus what is visually beautiful.
The current show at the Hurston is an exhibition titled “Taking Aim,” which features three bodies of work by Bayete Ross Smith (http://www.bayeterosssmith.com/ ). We take aim with thoughts or words, using racial profiling or racial slurs, and/or stereotyping to determine the identity of a person. The show left me thinking about how we label and judge things. Let’s be frank here, we all do this. We cannot be called a bad person because of our thoughts; it is our actions that determine if we are good or bad. When I get angry with some random driver who made me miss the light because they were too busy texting, which will cause me to be late, I want to shout at them for being an idiot, but then I think about my initial reaction and think it is stupid to get angry. Also, we are all judgmental; it’s a form of defense. For example we judge potential love interests based on past bad experiences to avoid making the same mistakes and having our hearts broken. We all label things; it is how we understand ourselves better and where we stand in society. For example, someone is a wedding photographer because they only take s pictures of weddings. I am a photographer, but I do not shoot wedding pictures; therefore I not a wedding photographer. These are all minor examples, but you get the idea.
Bayete Ross Smith’s work brings to the surface the action of judging and labeling. One body of work, which shares the same name as the exhibition, “Taking Aim,” is made up of practice sheets of shooting targets that are used in gun ranges, but instead of only having the silhouette of a male human form he printed various black and white portraits on them. The majority of the target/portraits are non-Caucasian males and females, dressed in a variety of ways, including a picture of the artist in a suit and tie. All these portraits were taken to a gun range and used for actual target practice, so all of them had bullet holes except for one, that of a small black child. As children we viewed the world with innocence, what happens to us as we entered adulthood? We judge and believe all Blacks are uneducated with no family values, or all Hispanics are illegal immigrants with no family values, or all Muslims are terrorists and have no family values. It also made me think that we as a culture are molding this child’s future by imposing our values indirectly on each other and deem what is acceptable and not acceptable. These portraits work in a simple but powerful manner.
Another thought that came out of “ Taking Aim“ was gun violence in the USA, which leads me to his second body of work titled “Gatling (America),” a series of portraits of various races and gender, but in color. In each portrait the individual is holding their favorite gun. When you normally think of guns you think of police, military, hunters, or criminals, not a person who could be your neighbor or a teacher, or the use of recreational gun use versus violent gun use. They are very well crafted portraits, but upon reading the artist statement I came to find out that an important part in this body of work was omitted. Each portrait is supposed to be accompanied by a questionnaire that was filled out by the person in the portrait, giving us an insight as to why they have guns in their lives, their experiences and relations to guns, and what they do for a living, informing the viewer with a better understanding of gun culture in the USA. For reasons unknown, these questionnaires were not included in the exhibition.
The last body of work “Passing,” is where Bayete took a standard ID portrait of a young man and applied that photo to different passports from around the world to make you question his ethnicity, nationality, and race. Is he Brazilian, British, Cuban, Colombian, Dutch, Ethiopian, French, Israeli, South African, Sudanese, or a U.S. Citizen? Is he White, Black, Mixed, Hispanic, Caucasian, or Middle Eastern? It is hard to tell, but all of these passports have the ability to be true or false as to the identity of the person. Again the question of why we need to label things arises. Do we have the ability to live in a culture similar to what is portrayed in Star Trek, the universal qualities of equality, liberty, justice, peace, and cooperation? Or the world described in the song “Maybe There’s a World” by Yusuf Islam, where he states, “ I have dreamt of an open world, borderless and wide, where the people move from place to place, and nobody’s taking sides.”
Even though Bayete Ross Smith work is not shown in a pristine gallery in Orlando, or the correct way it was intend to be seen (missing the documents that accompany the portraits in “Gatling”), or my belief that “Passing” could be stronger if it was presented as actual passports, or even at least present each passport in their own individual frame instead of doubling up the passports in one frame. The bottom line is that his artwork still has the power to question things, which I believe is the foundation of good art; to motivate, think, change, inspire, or open our minds and shake things up in the boxed environments that constantly surround and shape our views.
This exhibition will be on view at the Hurston until July 28, 2015.