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The violence in Steve Locke’s Family Pictures is so horrifying that I feel I should offer both a strong warning and also a rationale for viewing it in the first place. Locke’s shocking retort to the Black Lives Matter movement is on view at Gallery Kayafas in Boston’s South End through November 26, 2016 and has already garnered a lot of controversy and attention. I found it so gut wrenching that I traversed the show with my eyes wide shut. Let me explain why it’s worth a visit.
The unending shootings of unarmed Black men throughout the U.S. has spurred a vigorous response in the Black Lives Matter movement. Like many Black men, artist Steve Locke harbors a constant sense of trepidation and vigilance regarding law enforcement, but a couple of recent personal experiences impelled him to create Family Pictures, a piercing remembrance of past extreme injustices. He acquired old photographs documenting aspects of slavery and, in particular, of lynchings that were shot as souvenirs and sent to friends in the form of postcards by white onlookers at what where euphemistically called “picnics”. Locke domesticated the photographs by putting them in those Hallmark frames with cutesy phrases and placing them on a pretty inlaid wooden table against a wall painted in a homey Benjamin Moore hue. In this way, Locke recalls America’s original sin and literally brings it home, to sickening effect.
When I was growing up, teachers and parents felt obliged to expose kids to terrors like slavery and the holocaust, warning that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” But to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what, that’s what it is to be alive.” And while history may not repeat with precision, the stanzas of each era rhyme all too well. Although I was clearly too young when first stunned into realization of the human capacity for cruelty, there is never a good time to know evil. But there are better and worse ways to raise awareness. Art works. Especially in the modern era, photographers have led social change that has helped shape history. Locke has drawn a razor sharp line between past and present, one we ignore at our peril. In light of the vicious declarations of our President-elect, Locke’s work screams with renewed urgency.
Ideally, art is a transformative experience, enabling new and different ways of seeing, albeit not always pretty. Are Family Pictures transformative? Yes. Locke’s assemblages are so creatively barbed that they provoke a jumble of emotions: incredulity, revulsion, and sorrow, for starters. Undoubtedly, this disruption is Locke’s point. The exhibit is arranged to be intentionally overwhelming: you are locked into a path winding through multiple iterations of each set of photographs, a brutal repetition of stanzas that rhyme with the outrages being perpetrated against Black men today. It is extremely effective, so effective that you’ll never want to go back. Point taken, we should never go back.
For more information about this show, go to: http://www.gallerykayafas.com/
Feature Image: “Untitled (Our Honeymoon – red), 2015” (detail) from the series Family Pictures by Steve Locke (courtesy of Gallery Kayafas, Boston).