The Art of Disobedience

From the Black Panthers to Ferguson, finding a U.S. history we can be proud of.

Abby Lynn KlinkenbergOctober 6, 2017

Ja'Tovia Gary's <em>An Ecstatic Experience</em> draws on documentary footage of black freedom struggles. (List Visual Arts Center)

The List Visu­al Arts Cen­ter at MIT is cur­rent­ly home to List Projects: Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence, a pro­gram of doc­u­men­tary footage of social move­ments from 1931 to the present. In These Times spoke with cura­tor Hen­ri­ette Huld­isch about the exhibition.

What inspired this exhibition?

My re-encounter in ear­ly 2017 with Amer­i­ca, a black-and-white news­reel from 1969: footage from anti-war move­ments, Black Pan­thers, Viet­nam vet­er­ans against the war. It’s basi­cal­ly a por­trait of the incred­i­bly frac­tured and con­flict­ed times. I thought, oh my god, this just feels like 2017, a moment that was a water­shed but also in which Amer­i­ca was incred­i­bly polar­ized and divid­ed, and at the same time there were a lot of pow­er­ful social protest move­ments. Hard-fought social progress, back­lash, con­tro­ver­sial war, con­tro­ver­sial president.

What, ide­al­ly, do you want some­one to take away from the exhibition?

A lot of stu­dents have been jolt­ed into a height­ened polit­i­cal aware­ness over the last year. We’re tak­ing our cue from Thore­au and his idea that if you think your gov­ern­ment is doing some­thing that is unjust, ille­git­i­mate or ille­gal, then it is your demo­c­ra­t­ic oblig­a­tion to protest. We want­ed to demon­strate par­tic­u­lar flash­points in Amer­i­can his­to­ry as a point of inspi­ra­tion, but also to counter defeatism. I think it’s more pro­duc­tive to think the oth­er way and imag­ine, for exam­ple, where we would be if the suf­fragette move­ment had nev­er existed.

Which pieces have peo­ple respond­ed to most?

We’ve had an incred­i­ble amount of inter­est in the screen­ing of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the doc­u­men­tary on James Bald­win. I per­son­al­ly was very impressed by Made­line Anderson’s I Am Some­body, which doc­u­ments a strike for bet­ter wages and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions by black women health work­ers in the South in the late 1960s. They even­tu­al­ly win — a kind of David vs. Goliath story.

List Projects: Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence will be at MIT’s List Visu­al Arts Cen­ter in Cam­bridge, Mass., through Octo­ber 29.

Abby Lynn Klinken­berg is a sum­mer 2017 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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