This post leads me to questions I cannot answer.
Art Basel Miami Beach isn’t where you’d expect to find works made by a subtle and politically engaged artist. But, tucked away in a corner of the Kamel Mennour Gallery’s booth was Alfredo Jaar’s Mississippi Goddam.
Using the title of Nina Simone’s 1964 song, Jaar created a two-part work: a framed and wall-mounted white-on-black print and, in front of it, a pile of black-on-white prints on paper for visitors to take.
The works are simple and unphotogenic. In them, text is arranged in a five column grid of about fifty-five rows. Except for the top left position, there is a fill-in-the-blank space in each of the grid’s cells. The blank space is underlined, and followed by the word “GODDAM.”
At the top left, the blank space is filled in by “Mississippi.” As in Mississippi Goddam.
When I saw the piece in Miami, several place names quickly came to mind. Cleveland, Charleston, Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson could have filled some of the blanks. And then there were more places that I looked up later: Barstow, Opa-locka, Minneapolis, Oakland, San Diego, Richmond, North Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, Houston, and on and on and on. I’m not sure that Jaar’s 255 blank spaces are enough.
Here are a few lines from Nina Simone’s song:
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddam shortly after the murder of Medgar Evers (civil rights activist shot dead in his driveway in Jackson Mississippi, June 12, 1963) and the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama (four girls killed, another one blinded, and twenty more people injured, on September 15, 1963). Simone’s performances of the song are indelible. But she said that Mississippi Goddam ruined her career.
So, Alfredo Jaar.
I had taught his work in a few of my classes, and he’s the only artist I’ve ever written a fan letter to. What I love about Jaar’s work: his delicate handling of tough stuff, his persistence, his implication, “You know what to do.”
Nina Simone questions the people who say, “Go slow,” and she was probably right in every way that really matters. But what if change does happen gradually? What if change is propelled by subtlety and grace? What if what’s most important is the commitment to move a step forward, to apply pressure, to do what can be done whenever possible? To not forget? To act in memory?
But what has resulted from fifty years of going slow? Has it been fifty years of going backwards?