When Rodney King was pulled from his car and severely beaten by LAPD officers in 1991, it was the first time an incidence of police brutality caught on camera went viral, sparking national outrage. 25 years later, footage of police violence against black men, women, and children is seemingly everywhere. Inspired by the grim legacy of the Rodney King beating, a traveling exhibition called VIRAL: 25 Years from Rodney King examines the escalation from isolated, violent episodes to frequent, documented killings of black citizens.
The show features 100 works by more than 50 artists and is curated by Daryl Elaine Stenvoll-Wells, founder of Art Responders, a social media community for artists to share their responses to police brutality. “[Art Responders was a way] for myself and others to share art in all mediums, as well as links and commentary, mainly as a remedy for feelings of anger and helplessness,” Stenvoll-Wells tells The Creators Project.
“I was sitting in an LA café when I heard other diners on their mobiles, reporting how the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mike Brown,” she says. “There were already protesters lining up and blocking sections of the freeway in LA. Having grown up there, and having come of age around the time of the Rodney King beating and ensuing unrest, I was reminded of the anger and turmoil surrounding the issue of police brutality, and I wanted to express my own feelings about how little has changed. I ended up posting a portrait of Brown I’d made the previous summer and got a huge response. The New York Grand Jury neglected to indict Daniel Pantaleo, Eric Garner’s killer, only days later, and I posted a portrait of Garner as well.”
Work created by members of Art Responders formed the basis for VIRAL. The exhibition includes portraits of well-known victims—Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, to name just a few—alongside art memorializing under-reported incidents, like the murder of Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old man shot by San Francisco police while holding a taser. The exhibition is structured as a visual timeline of incidents, stretching across the gallery walls. Text, music, drawings, paintings, and video chronicle the significant laws and socio-technical developments related to the use of extrajudicial force against people of color.
“I’m old enough now to have lived through three or four waves of public interest and protest on American police brutality, followed by periods of disinterest as other issues have taken precedence,” Stenvoll-Wells says. “So although there are a lot of pieces available depicting the Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin case, there are inadequate amounts of work depicting lesser-known cases. Before I put out a call for art for both the LA and Oakland exhibitions, I created a spreadsheet covering the entire 25 year period covered by the show. I documented at least four cases for each year along the timeline—over 100 cases—and sent this to artists who expressed an interest in submitting so they could consider depicting cases that nobody knew about.”
"Memoriam for Alex Nieto," photograph by Susan Mah
The exhibition also raises questions about what it means for violence to be increasingly filmed and shared online. Their virality evokes the Rodney King tape, taken to extremes. The video of Philandro Castile’s death received 5.4 million views immediately after it was released, for example. In an essay titled "How Do Black Lives Matter in MoMA’s Collection?” posted to MoMA’s website, Thomas Lax, the museum’s Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art writes, “Documentation of violence against black people is nothing new: it has been disseminated through photography and video since the beginnings of both media.”
In this way, the work in VIRAL deals not just with the present and recent past, it alludes to the gruesome history of photographing public lynchings from the era of slavery through the 20th century. This culture of passive observation—now typified by a loose network of millions of viewers, who see and share images of black death online—is rooted in the Western tradition of the lynch mob.
“Many people in the current Movement for Black Lives believe that the only valid form of protest is getting out in the streets and disrupting people’s everyday lives, so no one can escape from confronting this issue,” Stenvoll-Wells says. “However, while I think these forms of activism have been incredibly effective, and I commend those who participate in them, that kind of participation isn’t a possibility for everyone. I think everyone should have a chance to make their voices heard on this issue, and I strongly believe that art is a fundamental component of changing hearts and minds over time.”
For more information on the Art Responders and VIRAL: 25 Years from Rodney King, click here.