Black Women’s Lives Matter

“Back Talk,” photography by Penny Meschke. Artwork created by Pamela Cook. Photo courtesy of Intermedia Arts.

“Say her name.” It’s a phrase and social media hashtag that spread quickly in the U.S. following the death of Sandra Bland in July of last year. Bland was one of at least five Black women who died after encounters with police in 2015, though often these incidents received much less media attention than deaths involving male victims.

In “Hands Up Don’t Shoot – HER,” an exhibit assembled by Intermedia Arts, Obsidian Arts and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, artists attempt to “say her name,” bringing to light the humanity of Black women in a time of violence against them.

Paintings, photography, textile art, poetry and more are in this exhibit curated by Roderic Southall, of Obsidian Arts. The artwork was selected through a blind submission process by a jury of three, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Leola Johnson and Jann Cather Weaver. They also selected art for a companion exhibit, “Faith [In]Action?” curated by Southall and Sheryl Schwyhart, which will be held at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. The sister exhibit examines the role and response of the faith community in the Black Lives Matter struggle.

Photo by E.G. Bailey Foto Libre

Sullivan Janzen, who is the gallery curator and special projects coordinator at the University of Minnesota Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), hopes that visitors who see the show will walk away with questions of why violence persists against Black women, as well as new knowledge about specific cases. The people who experience the exhibit will “become a new cluster of those advocating for some real change in the justice system,” she says.

“Sandra Bland’s story really brought it home,” Sullivan Janzen says. “She didn’t fit the stereotype that people would use to explain what had happened.”

Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation last summer, an incident that escalated quickly into an altercation with a state trooper. Three days later she was found dead, hanging by a trash bag in her cell in Waller County, Texas.

Often, according to Sullivan Janzen, there is a silence about Black women’s experiences, and a persistent belief that Black women are somehow immune to the violence that Black men face at the hands of police. “Yet if you dig for it, there are some troubling statistics,” she says.

While the particular focus of “Hands Up Don’t Shoot – HER” is the role of Black women facing police violence, Sullivan Janzen says that the panelists had to ask themselves questions about contributing factors to the violence that women face. For example, one piece looks at poverty in the city of Detroit.

They’re Pulling Her Away by Tabala Jali Thomas

“We realized that while the key premise is blackness and womanness, the show embraces transgender, it embraces poor black women and rich black women – it’s a conversation about why [violence] happens,” Sullivan Janzen says.

The exhibit includes representations of women in the Black Lives Matter movement, and explores the role of Black women in American society, says Cather Weaver, an associate professor emerita at United Theological Seminary.

Cather Weaver says that not all of the works the panel chose are tragic. “We selected some images that have a joyful sense about them,” she says. “It’s not just beaten women, but African-American women who are joyful or serene or strong family members,” she says.

At the same time, going through the submissions often proved overwhelming, because of “their starkness and in the raw truth that they represented,” she says. At times, the panelists felt uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what they had hoped for. “People are not going to be comforted by these images,” Cather Weaver says. “They are difficult to look at because they are horrifying in the truth they tell.”