Art & Soul: The Visual Arts - 'Never Free To Rest' Art Exhibit Features Pigeons Representing Racism
This week, "Art and Soul" is about the visual arts. WEMU's Lisa Barry and the executive director of CultureSource, Omari Rush, talk with artist Rashaun Rucker about his current exhibit at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery. It compares the life and origins of the rock pigeon to the stereotypes and myths of the constructed identities of Black men in the United States.
by Rashaun Rucker
September 13 - October 15, 2021
Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer
free and open to the public
1. To assign to a particular category or class, especially in a manner that is too rigid or exclusive.
Synonyms: categorize, classify, label, typecast, ghettoize
Never Free to Rest compares the life and origins of the rock pigeon to the stereotypes and myths of the constructed identities of Black men in the United States of America.
My practice serves as an archive of Black culture as it intersects with myths and realities. As source material for my drawings, I utilize images of men I know and photographs of men incarcerated in the United States prison industrial complex. The photographs of those incarcerated are taken from various websites and newsletters and then collaged or altered to create the work. The work is intended to be a record of their lives, a marker of the social conditioning and heavy challenges we face as Black men. The exhibition is influenced by the inescapable thoughts and words of friends lost: those who were incarcerated, those who believed there was no way out—that they had been permanently assigned to the bottom of America’s caste system even though their talents were immense and so often appropriated.
Pigeons are similar to how many people see Black men in society: individuals that populate urban landscapes and live off assistance (i.e. the system) and viewed as vermin by some.
Although pigeons have a long history with humans, it’s nearly impossible to identify their original habitat. Europeans brought pigeons to North America in the 1600s, around the same time as the inception of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States.
Displaced from their natural environment, and without a migration gene to guide them, the birds adapted to their circumstances and the environments imposed upon them. Within months, their location is permanently imprinted in their minds as being home. Much like the pigeons, Black people were taken from their place of foundation and assigned a station in society within the colonized Western Hemisphere.
My work intends to communicate how the environment we have been placed in as Black people, created by generational systemic oppressions, becomes a reluctant contentment rather than a fleeting station—the “why” of “Black men often don’t fly” (achieve)—even though we can fly beyond these constructed circumstances.
Never Free to Rest explores the belief that we as Black men are only permitted in certain designed or designated spaces based upon these same racial stereotypes, to occupy prisons like pigeons in coops.
It is my hope that the exhibition provides an incubator for intergenerational conversations between Black men and boys, giving them a safe space to discuss these ongoing issues among themselves.
Notes from the Curator
I’m struggling with the words on the wall--
What words can possibly do justice.
What comes next...to be continued…
It’s more about the Breaking than picking up where we left off,
All in pieces on the floor,
And no quick fix.
Let’s just start...deconstruct it, create a new order of things, begin again, undo, unravel, dismantle, haul in the wrecking ball.
Wreak havoc, whack it with a mallet, wield the hammer and crack it wide open, take it down.
Rashaun Rucker’s exhibition Never Free to Rest, represents the last works in his remarkable ornithology series that explores the rock pigeon as metaphor for the systemic debasement, mistreatment and conditioning of Black men in America. Each drawing serves as a record, a myriad of marks, as if keeping time.
In addition to four new drawings, the exhibition also includes two inaugural sculptural works designed by the artist and fabricated as part of his Institute for the Humanities residency. The hand-cast etched edition I Hit More Than I Miss replicates a portrait by Rucker, half pigeon/half man, on oversized “Clay Pigeons,” the blaze orange discs typically used for target practice.
As a performative element of the installation process, the artist willfully breaks three times as many discs as he displays. The pieces soon accumulate on the floor like rubble. There is the sound like a shot each time a disc hits the ground with the undeniable force of gravity.
The work is as much about the breaking as the making..broken systems, promises, dreams.
...Also, at a time when Black artists and their works are in high demand, the project leads to hard questions.
How can white institutions, curators, galleries, and collectors act responsibly beyond words and good intentions? How do we break the cycle of appropriation and commodification? How do we abolish the long held practice of ventriloquism?
–Amanda Krugliak, arts curator
Lisa Barry: You're listening to 89 WEMU and this is Art and Soul. I'm Lisa Barry. This week, art and soul is about the visual art, so we're joined by the director of CultureSource, Omari Rush. Hi, Omari.
Omari Rush: Hi, Lisa.
Lisa Barry: And we have a very special guest with a very special exhibit at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery. Rashaun Rucker. Hi, thanks for talking to us.
Rashaun Rucker: Hey, how are you? I'm happy to be here.
Lisa Barry: The name of your exhibition is "Never Free to Rest." And let me just put this out there that it compares the life and origins of the rock pigeon to the stereotypes and myths of the constructed identities of Black men in the United States. That's a lot. Can you break that down and and tell us what that really is all about?
Rashaun Rucker: Oh, I just wanted to make work that spoke specifically to conditioning for Black men in America, and I always tell people I can only talk about Black men because that's what I am. I can't necessarily do justice to somebody else's plight, just what I'm experiencing. And I wanted to talk about it in a new way without the same tropes that we've seen before. And coming across the idea of the pigeon and is doing more research and learning that pigeons came to America around the same time as the transatlantic slave trade, and then also just thinking about people's ideas of pigeons and how pigeons are rat for wings. And they're living off the scraps, and they're scavenging and they're doing this and kind of gave me the same idea about how people would think that, you know, Black people live in our systems and assistances and programing and all these different things. But, when you get down to the foundation of it, both are two things that were brought here to America in servitude or but just because someone wanted to bring the bird of that time. And it's kind of like now, whether you deal with two living beings that now have to figure out how to survive and adapt. And so, that is kind of the foundation of it.
Omari Rush: Rashaun. One. Amazing. I love it. I'm obsessed. Two. Would you be able to just talk about what the work actually looks like? The kind of range of your exploration of this as a theme?
Rashaun Rucker: For this particular show, it's kind of new for me because, normally, there is just large graphite drawings. But this show has two particular installations one being in cast plaster of clay pigeons, which people know they use those clay pigeons for target practice and skeet shooting adn trap shooting. And I've created much larger clay pigeons with the face of one Black man on each pigeon. But the majority of the pigeons are broken and scattered throughout the gallery. And it speaks to the broken body that I've experienced with friends and just in the Black community. And there's only three unbroken plates on the wall, and the piece is called "I Hit More Than I Missed." And this is about how only a few of us are able to sometimes traverse the obstacles put in front of us by systemic racism and redlining and all these other things that exist in America that we have to deal with this. They're four large drawings in here, and, usually, the drawings are faces of Black man that amalgamated with pigeon body parts with his face, or it's the head of the pigeon, wings, sometimes full body pigeons. A lot of the faces are usually people I know, and some of the faces are collaged photos of people inside the carcel system. And the installation is called a "perilous perch." And it is a life-size pigeon coop with the perch made of American flags. And then on top of the perch are pigeon spikes, which you always see at gas stations and buildings, which are put there, so pigeons won't roost or make a mess on the building. It's funny because on the advertising for the spike, it says it makes the bird go to a place that's more accessible. And so, putting that on the flag and sometimes America is not accessible to us, even though we live here, and the flag is talked about in general. You know, I'm still a painter and I'm still an American, but it's really hard to reckon with being in a place where sometimes you never feel the reciprocity in our laws.
Lisa Barry: When you create this art, where does that come from in you--from your heart, from your mind, from your experience, from when you walk out the door every day in 2021 and what you're still facing?
Rashaun Rucker: I think it's all three things, Lisa. I mean, and I was telling somebody not long ago, we always talk about these respectability politics, which I hate, and it's like, you know, if you comply with the police or if you did this or you did that, I said, you know, one day when I was working the Free Press and I was the editor at the time and I'm walking down the street with another Black editor wearing suits and we had a meeting that day. Somebody comes past us and they yell out slurs and "Go home, Darkie!" And I told my boss the next day, I said, "You look at me. I'm exactly what you or the world wants me to be. I'm educated. I'm Black. I'm law abiding. I've never been in trouble. But that didn't stop me from experiencing that. Because what happens is you experience my skin before you experience me. So, nobody knows what you've accomplished. So, a lot of times, those things when you were told to comply and do all the other things, that really doesn't exist or stop you from experiencing those type of traumatic things are life in America.
Omari Rush: And, Rashaun, as you create this work, do you find that, you know, if I take Lisa's question to be about what goes in, I'm wondering what comes out? Do you feel healed, energized, hopeful? Do you get into like a deep dark depression? Where do you where do you kind of end up on the other side?
Rashaun Rucker: It's really not a freedom in making the work. It's more about me reckoning with my own issues that have bothered me, and, yo know, what we deal with our society. But, also, there's a joy in me making the work, and it's not because of the heaviness of it. It's just a joy that I have in truly being an artist and making work. And what I always look for is that when I do a show or show pieces, you're looking at the residue of my joy. But also the residue of my joy is both to confront you with questions that need to be answered. And I tell people all the time when you see this work, you know, the things I want you to take away from it is, are you in a coop? If you place somebody in a coop, are you helping somebody escape the coop? What's your role in the system? And those are the things I want people to think about when they encounter the work.
Lisa Barry: Have you been around inside the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities gallery to see people looking at your work? And what kind of reactions are they having?
Rashaun Rucker: I'm getting only positive reactions, and I think, you know, the one thing I hear from students or people is that I will never look at a pidgeon the same way ever again.
Omari Rush: Seriously.
Rashaun Rucker: But I tell people, you know, one of the things that's beautiful about pigeons is when we see them, you know, you usually seeing gray, black and white, I say. But it's not till you get really close to a pigeon, you start to see the purples and the greens and the blues and the iridescence in their feathers, and you see the beauty of them. And I think that speaks to Black men or Black people or brown people as well. It's, like, you don't know the beauty of something to have a direct, genuine relationship with it and not viewing it from afar.
Lisa Barry: It's called "Never Free to Rest." We've been talking to the artist Rashaun Rucker. It's at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery through October 15. Thank you so much for talking to us here on 89-1 WEMU. Omari Rush. Always good to connect with you as well, too.
Omari Rush: Yes. Lisa, Rashaun. This is really just solid. So great. Thanks so much.
Rashaun Rucker: Thank you. Grateful to be here.
**Special thanks to Paul Keller for providing the Art & Soul theme music.**
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