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Malcolm X’s ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ Inspires an Art Exhibition

Zachary Fabri investigates power and politics through video and pop culture.
Zachary Fabri, Aureola (Black Presidents) Dave Chappelle. All images courtesy of the artists

In 1964, Malcolm X delivered his most memorable speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” In it, the Civil Rights leader summarized the frustrations the black community felt with the slow pace of full equality in 1960s America. “It's time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for;” he said three months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “what we're supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet. It's either a ballot or a bullet.” Malcolm X’s desire to find agency and hope in the democratic process inspired artist Zachary Fabri’s current exhibition, From the Wolf to the Fox, at Aljira in Newark, New Jersey.


“This particular show uses old and new works that all point to this moment in terms of the election, black bodies, and the safety and agency of being non-normative and being in public space,” Fabri tells The Creators Project. “All of these things are collapsing onto themselves in the world. My work is a response to me navigating the physical and emotional space” of this moment.

lorem ipsum Edward Wilmont Blyden 1887, installation view. 40 x 40 vinyl print.

lorem ipsum Edward Wilmont Blyden 1887, 40 x 40 vinyl print.

“My practice allows me to negotiate both the political and the metaphysical because my work is about not becoming consumed with the politics I am engaging in,” he says. His series of stills, Aureola (Black Presidents), features comedy legends such as Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Sammy Davis Jr., and Chris Rock, all playing the commander-in-chief in pop culture films and TV shows. “This whole series make me question why white writers, producers, and filmmakers, have historically represented the president as black in TV and film? And what does that mean for representation for people of color when they see themselves in a position of power in fiction versus in fact?” Fabri engulfs the fictional black presidents in light, creating what he calls “a halo effect that references stature and hope.”

Zachary Fabri, Red Handed, 2010, (detail) Digital c print. Photo credit: Gabriella Araujo. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition also includes a series of videos—Red Handed, Untitled (Favela Double Photo)—that explore immaterial things “that don’t have any apparent political associations” but evoke the body’s relationship to the environment. The Big Pay Back, a video of an impromptu street performance, alludes to what the artist sees as what’s at stake with this presidential election for the black community. In the video, shot on 125th street in Harlem, two older black men dance to James Brown’s "The Payback" in front of a poster that says, “Buy Black.” Fabri says, “ What does ‘Buy Black’ mean right now? In the video it gets complicated because it starts off with, ‘Buy Black’ then reads as ‘Buy Black People’ and then flashes to ‘Free Black People,’ and lastly, ‘Bye Bye Black People.’” He says, “It’s a play on words, riffing on notions of economy, ownership, gentrification, and the commodity of bodies and culture.”


Says Fabri, “What I want people to take from this show is an understanding of agency, choice, and autonomy.”

The Big Payback, 2010 from Zachary Fabri on Vimeo.

From the Wolf to the Fox continues through January 15 at Aljira. For more information, click here.


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