By Autumn Brown
Art is a natural way for a person to express their feelings and ideas. There are many roles artists can play in society, including magician, teacher, myth-maker, propagandist, and catalyst for social change.
Often, the intersection in which an artists’ place collides with social movements, change, and culture are not acknowledged nor valued in education. Certainly schools are central to education in the United States however, education must not be reduced to the discourse of schooling.
Our youth as well as our communities are plagued with a range of issues that our schools are unable to fully address or influence; and, our communities are an important realm around which the integration of art and democratic goals should be organized. In response to the state-sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020 and George Floyd on May 25, 2020, four architectural artists were compelled to contribute to the discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter Movement the summer of 2020. Their contribution: A staggeringly beautiful installation with rusted steel bars that swing like prairie grass called “Society’s Cage.”
A context for the country’s racist institutions
Society’s Cage, created by SmithGroup architects Dayton Schroeter, Julian Arrington, Monteil Crawley, and Ivan O’Garro, is an interpretive installation that reckons with state-sanctioned violence on Black bodies and our country’s 400 year history of institutional racism and White supremacy. This traveling installation comes to Tulsa, Oklahoma, after previous exhibitions in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall and in Baltimore, Maryland on War Memorial Plaza.
Far away eyes would view Society’s Cage as a large box-like structure with varying hues of rust. But the intricate research these architects used to construct the cage far surpasses the gaze’s superficial rendition of the structure. I was most taken aback at the fact that every material used in the cage, down to the measurements of the box and the length of the swinging steel, had integral meaning in contextualizing this country’s racist institutions and the use of deadly force against Black bodies in America.
This 15-by-15 structure, equal in dimensions to represent equity and equality, begins by asking the question: “What is the value of Black life?” Moving around the cage shows the impact of America’s prison industrial complex on Black bodies, data meant to provoke an uncomfortable yet necessary conversation to begin the process of reconciliation. The swinging steel bars give off an eerie similarity to prison bars.
Exhibit housed at Vernon A.M.E. church
Delving further into this desolate space, one notices the rusted steel pipes swinging at differing lengths. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of this installation, in my opinion, are these 484 1-inch-diameter pipes and the four forms of state violence they represent: lynchings, police violence, mass incarceration, and capital punishment. These bars represent the hideous reality of racism in America, evoking the weighted feeling of racism constantly tugging on Black bodies.
While taking in the more than 10,000 names whose lives were frozen due to state sanctioned violence or the profound quotes by distinguished Black scholars and literaries, personal thoughts may be interrupted by a euphony of sounds in four parts, composed by New Orleans based musicians Raney Antoine Jr. and Lovell “U-P” Cooper. Playing on a loop inside of the cage is 8 minutes and 46 seconds of indelible interpretive aural expression of the Black experience. The soundscape created to support Society’s Cage begins with interpretive sounds meant to represent the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, ending with a soul commending chorus.
Brought to Tulsa, Oklahoma by organizations such the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Tri-City Collective, Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Jewish Federation, SmithGroup and others, Society’s Cage will continue on exhibit through Saturday, June 19, 2021. This dynamic installation is housed on the grounds of the historic Vernon A.M.E. Church located at 311 N. Greenwood Avenue. After visiting the cage, also be sure to venture across the street to the Kinsey African American Art & History collection on exhibit at the Greenwood Cultural Center until June 27.