The myth of America is disintegrating. Systemic racism, authoritarian politics, extreme wealth disparities, and wholesale corruption of American institutions strike at our shared humanity and democratic ideals.
Titi de Baccarat’s “1968: The Timeline of a History of Symbols,” a front-window installation at SPACE on Congress Street in Portland through Jan. 3, presents the author’s interpretation of the turbulent cultural and political struggles defining and redefining our lives as Americans and human beings.
“I don’t do politics,” de Baccarat asserts in the statement accompanying this politically charged exhibition. Like each of us, however, he cannot escape the politics of culture.
“Art is dangerous,” Duke Ellington asserted. If it wasn’t so ‘dangerous,’ what role would art play in a world swept up into a vortex of savage inequalities and rising authoritarianism? Roman emperor Nero did not play the violin as Rome burned, but he did nothing to save Rome from the inferno. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” warns Nobel Laureate and South African theologian Desmond Tutu.
De Baccarat’s installation makes it clear that he too recognizes the critical importance of an artist’s resistance to prevailing institutions and the political leadership that fail to respond to democratic movements and popular initiatives. The artist comes to this place and time in America through middle-class life in Gabon, to Gabonese political refugee, to New York City street observer, to Portland factory worker and artist-community activist. His African and American eyes see more than most of us and his show lets us see how one immigrant from Africa finds America today.
Three objects dominate the installation: two life-size human figures – one standing and one kneeling – in front of an imposing American flag as a dramatic backdrop to the entire installation. These figures are both real and symbolic; that is, they are modeled on two athletes who resisted oppression by protesting during the playing of the national anthem. Their images have become icons of popular resistance to the American myth. One stands with a raised, defiant, black-gloved fist and the other kneels in protest of racial injustice: Tommie Smith (1968 Olympics) and Colin Kaepernick (NFL pre-season game) in 2016.
The installation as a whole relates to televised or digitized patriotic and heroic imagery of Americans in military uniform we’ve seen over the two decades of the 21st century (the post-9/11 era). But the scene most closely resembles the televised images of the Southeast Asian War. The flag dominating the background appears to be full of burns or bullet holes that turn out to be shirt collars and lapels cut in the flag’s fabric. The flag forces a question to the surface: Why are images of American presidents buttoned on dress shirt collars burning through the nation’s principal symbol of independence, nationalism, and freedom?
The artist adds to the disorienting tension in the piece with several dismembered arms thrust upward from the floor in power salutes, as if the wounded and dead were determined to resist the American myth to the end. These acts of silent protest reverberate through de Baccarat’s artistic imagination. They illustrate the power of nonviolent resistance to oppression, the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
They also demonstrate the power of popular media. Kaepernick’s jersey No. 7 and Smith’s No. 307 have acquired symbolic force directly confronting and countering the political mythology of America. They point to the terrible persistence of racist ideas and practices in American society and its institutions.
De Baccarat’s background and perspective add deeper historical relevance to this work. In this work, he subtly blends African symbols and objects with American pop culture; it infuses the work with promising cultural and political energy. Elsewhere in the tableau, de Baccarat places a suitcase; it suggests migration is a fundamental reality of the African and African American experience.
The SPACE window, though, can interfere with viewing the exhibition, especially the reflections from the buildings across Congress Street. While these street reflections might add to the disorienting nature of the work, they tend to veil and obscure large sections of it, especially during daylight hours. Part of the power of this piece is its proximity to the street and the feeling that it is almost part of the street, pulling viewers into its space. The installation is best seen at night when the interior gallery lights reveal more details and the gravity of its effect can be more fully appreciated.
De Baccarat’s artistic sensibility to iconic images and symbols of African American resistance movements from civil rights to Black Power to Black Lives Matter resonates with his deep personal yearning for love and equality, for peace and justice. De Baccarat knows the struggle for human freedom is a global one. It is also intensely personal – emotionally, psychologically, and politically. And de Baccarat expresses this through his choice of found objects, appropriated images of celebrities cut from newspapers, magazines, and other everyday materials, all improvised in a work of art – the way protest often is.
De Baccarat’s exhibition at SPACE attempts to bring the viewer into close contact with the contradictions of the American myth and the visionary power of those who stand and kneel in defiance of it. It is a timely, engaging, and wholly provocative work that everyone should see.
Freelance art critic John Ripton lives in Kennebunkport.