It is easy to be struck by a sense of confusion when walking into James T. Green’s exhibit on respectability politics and the events of Ferguson, Missouri at the Arts Incubator, located one block west of Washington Park. The exhibit space is a sparse room with white walls and lightly colored wooden floors. Upon entering the space, the first thing that sticks out is a large wooden platform in the middle of the room, covered in printer paper–sized photos. Behind this, there is another wooden platform propped up against the wall, also covered in photos. At first glance, these photos appear to be a mass of people and colors, but upon further inspection, it is clear that some are scenes depicting police presence, others depict a repeated image of a fallen Michael Brown, while others are simply pictures of black Americans going about their daily activities. It is both striking and sensually overwhelming to see how many times these images are repeated. Looking at both platforms as a whole made it impossible to discern the true meaning of the images. Only through looking at individual pictures was it possible to understand the piece of art as a whole.
At first glance, the artwork seems to be fairly simple. From the entrance of the exhibit, it almost appears as though someone split several sheets of paper over a platform and forgot about it. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the haphazard placement of these papers gives this piece further depth. This creates a sense of confusion for the viewer, one that mirrors the confusion felt during, and as a result of, the events in Ferguson. This confusion forces the viewer to look further into the exhibit.
Around the door, there is a computer monitor with the question, “What were you doing on November 24th, 2014?” written in giant letters. November 24 being the date that the decision on the Ferguson case was released. The result of seeing this date, if one is not familiar with it, triggers guilt, since the Ferguson decision was so tragic. The answers to the question posed are incorporated in one of the most striking parts of the exhibit: a large flat screen TV located to the side of the room. The video on the TV features a black man sporting dreadlocks and a pair of large glasses. The piece, which is playing on a loop, shows the man staring into the camera, sighing, and scratching his chin as if deep in thought. The viewers can see different websites in the reflection of the man’s glasses. Hence the thoughtful moment that one observes is the man surfing the internet—presumably on November 24. Underneath the video there is a space for visitors to share their locations and activities at the moment the Ferguson decision was released. The most memorable answer was simply, "Crying."
Respectability politics is a way of letting an oppressed people, and in this case black Americans, define their culture in their own way. This is empowering because black Americans have often been spoken for by people outside of their culture. Green’s exhibit seems to put a small part of the power back into the black community, by offering an opportunity for people to talk about how they viewed such a tragic event in their own community.