Witness Project art installations reflect on police violence

By: Daniel Aloi,  Cornell Chronicle
October 12, 2016

Records and representations of, and responses to police violence will be on display as part of “Witness Project/We See You,” a multi-site installation opening this month on campus.

The collaborative interdisciplinary project is a component of the yearlong series at Cornell, Freedom Interrupted: Race, Gender, Nation and Policing.

“This portion of the collaboration foregrounds the humanizing texts, images and perspectives of artists who invite us to witness the unfolding of events relative to policing in our nation,” said Noliwe Rooks, interim chair and associate professor of Africana studies, who also teaches in Feminist, Gender Sexuality Studies (FGSS). “Such images are an invitation to stop, see and think more deeply about this moment, our relationship to it and what it says about who we are … [and] ask us to think about who we most want to be.”

A catered opening reception for the project will be held Oct. 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Africana Studies and Research Center, 310 Triphammer Road. The reception and art installations are free and open to the public.

The Witness Project display in the Africana Center lobby is “Bearing Witness: Ferguson, Missouri,” a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs by David Carson, Robert Cohen and Christian Gooden of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, chronicling the aftermath of black teenager Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer in Ferguson.

“Mike Brown’s death, for many young people and the nation at large, marked the beginning of a renewed commitment to policing reform and a sustained movement declaring that black lives matter,” Rooks said.

The Latina/o Studies Resource Center, on the fourth floor of Rockefeller Hall, is displaying posters by Dignidad Rebelde of Oakland, California, a collaboration of graphic artists Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes, who will visit Cornell in March. The posters are distributed (in museum-quality prints and downloadable form) as a free resource for action, awareness and solidarity in communities facing violence against residents and oppression by state forces.

Partnering with grassroots organizations to empower communities fighting for quality of life and political enfranchisement, Dignidad Rebelde creates “work that translates people’s stories into art that can be put back into the hands of the communities who inspire it.”

“Jesus and Melanie also teach young people, from the digital aspect to the actual silk screening … to me, it comes down to hope,” said Ella Diaz, assistant professor of English and Latina/o studies. “One of the things I like most about their work, is in the portraits they do … they use vivid colors, and we see direct gazes and smiles. They are committed to remembering people in life. They want to honor and raise awareness of the injustices and the killings happening, but do not want to further exploit people in death. The posters are very positive and, in that respect, they do no more harm to those that have been harmed.”

FGSS and LGBT studies will bring World Poetry Slam champion Porsha Olayiwola to campus in March, and will present a graffiti installation this year by artist David Petrelli “that honors and mourns victims who were queer-identified, transgender, disabled, women of color or of intersecting identities,” said Trisica Munroe, program manager.

In her poem “Rekia Boyd,” Olayiwola, a.k.a. Porsha O, spoke out for cisgender and transgender black female victims of police violence, countering a false narrative that over-policing is a problem for male-identifying black men only. Her work reflects the African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName campaign to bring black women and girls’ experiences with police brutality to the forefront.

Departments and programs participating in the Witness Project and Freedom Interrupted also include American Studies, Asian American Studies, Performing and Media Arts and Romance Studies, all in the College of Arts and Sciences; the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability in the ILR School.

Also as part of Freedom Interrupted, the Spanish-language theatre group Teatrotaller will perform staged readings of “After Orlando” on campus and in downtown Ithaca in November, in collaboration with Cultura! Ithaca and Civic Ensemble.

Additional Witness Project and Freedom Interrupted installations and events will be announced.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Witness project art installations