No Justice, No Peace: From Ferguson to Toronto
Gladstone Hotel, Toronto
Feb. 2 – 26, 2017
Zun Lee, Jalani Morgan and Nation Cheong document contemporary protests against anti-Black police violence—the ways in which Black bodies are unjustly disciplined, policed, incarcerated and killed—in two cities. The exhibition is temporally and geographically narrow in scope yet broadly, urgently, resonant. WHICH SIDE OF HISTORY ARE YOU ON? The question is writ large here, literally and figuratively, and its direct address to the viewer renders spectatorial neutrality impossible.
NJNP is a compelling exhibition in its own right, but its images are part of a historical and deeply intertextual conversation. The show, co-curated by Julie Crooks and Reese de Guzman, and co-presented by the Ryerson Image Centre and Black Artists’ Networks Dialogue, is one in a season of shows entitled Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest. Many of the chants and cheers, songs and signs that Lee, Morgan and Cheong witness repeat and resound among the works and through the years. The phrase “No Justice, No Peace” is itself a truncated version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s linking of the anti-war and the civil rights movements of the 1960s: “There can be no justice without peace and no peace without justice.” Formally, Jalani Morgan’s decision to print his images in black and white connects present civil rights activism with the legacies of its past. WE WILL NOT FORGET.
In a photograph Nation Cheong made at Queen’s Park, Toronto (2010), young Black men protest the Ontario Safe Schools Act‘s “zero tolerance” policies and its disproportionate targeting of them. They demand LESS JAILS MORE SCHOOLS and TRUTH IN EDUCATION, calling out the ways in which discipline is so often discriminatory and racism serves Capitalist interests (as it has since the days of slavery). While Canadians tend to think of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex (if we think of them at all) as American phenomena, a protest sign featured in one of Morgan’s images brings us back to reality: THIS IS NOT AN AMERICAN THING. We are necessarily immersed in the racialized experiences of our times, even if we believe ourselves outside them. There is no “post-racial” society.
In a portrait Morgan made on the streets of Toronto (2014), a woman peers out at him from behind a head-sized hole cut out of her protest placard. The sign asks simply, directly: AM I NEXT? The question alludes to the long line of unarmed Black men killed by police without repercussion or justice in recent years (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Andrew Loku, Trayvon Martin … the list goes on). Morgan describes his subject’s question as “The reality of Black life.” This image came back to me as I watched Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). While the horror of racial violence is always and already literal, Peele renders it hyper-literal: to be Black in America is to live in a veritable house of horrors. The protagonist, Chris Washington, is a photographer whose camera is literally a conscious-raising device: it has the power, momentarily, to snap a man out of his lobotomy-induced servitude and to warn Chris to escape the structure—the façade of white liberalism—before he becomes its next victim. AM I NEXT?
In a picture Zun Lee made at BLMTO Tent City (2016), a protester sleeps beneath a sign that (re)claims Toronto Police Headquarters as a BLACK LOVE ZONE. The image is untitled, but Lee’s caption notes that it was “Another chilly but love-filled night”; beneath this photograph is one of Toronto artist Dainty Smith’s “visceral, emotional performance” for a crowd gathered at the same ephemeral City. Lee’s diptych depicts the other side of action in an exhibition that necessarily evokes a lot of noise: quotidian, quiet moments. His images insist that Black love, comradery, and art are vital components of Black protest. Being in protest is not only being against but also and inextricably being with: to protest is also to rally. And while protest is public presence and raising awareness and sometimes, yes, educating others, it is also private conversation and self-care and joy. It has to be.
I thought of NJNP as I watched Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016), a film whose very title insists that I is not yours for the taking or making. Lee, Morgan and Cheong, with Peck, and with James Baldwin before them, insist upon ongoing self-construction and self-regard. They counter the commodification of protest (Pepsi’s recent disaster of an ad, for example) and white-dominated media and art that continually reinforce racist stereotypes. I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, emphasizing the ways in which artists pick up, extend, and carry on the work of their predecessors. No Justice, No Peace participates in the long history of Black resistance to the systemic racism that has cultivated inequality for centuries. NJNP places itself, and its audience, within that history, and asks us, repeatedly, what we are going to do about it. I HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS AS TO WHY CIVILIANS CONTINUE GETTING KILLED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT. Many of the images here—and the signs they document—are questions. Their questions offer an opening into the future, and we are invited to respond. To act.
The exhibition’s interrogative, intertextual mode also functions as a kind of call-and-response within it, accentuating the connections and constraints of shared history. In one of his Ferguson images, Lee shows a child visiting a destroyed section of the city and holding a single flower. Behind him, caution tape and a tagged girder: AMERICA WAKE UP! In one his Toronto images (captioned “If not now, then when?”), Morgan shows us a child, arms raised, below a sign held by another: MY BLACK LIFE MATTERS.
AMERICA WAKE UP! / MY BLACK LIFE MATTERS. Signs of the times, begging the question: what will emerge from recent history?