It’s the start of 2020, before all our attention focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, and before the museums were closed for public viewing, I made my way to the de Young Museum to view the exhibition Soul of a Nation.
As is typical for me, I take my time, moving through an exhibition, looking at each art object for its with resonance with me and in relation to all the works in the show. In each gallery room, I do the same. Some I move through swiftly, and others for as long as it takes to understand the context of the curatorial intention and for the art to settle into my emotions. After I have this time to comprehend, to understand, to see and to feel, I make my way back through the exhibition to photograph those works of art that tell a story to me, either personally or in response to more expansive themes running through my mind. It was during one of these revisitations that Woodrow observed me.
I am sure that Woodrow, a security guard at the museum, pegged me as someone coming into the gallery anew and snapping quick photos of the works without a pause for reflection. In truth, this is what he observed. He beckoned me to join him on a bench in the center of the gallery where we could sit and view the impactful works in the room.
“What do you see in that painting?” he asked me. Woodrow, an elderly black man, directed his look and nodded toward Mike Henderson’s 1968 painting, Non-Violence.
Henderson’s painting depicts an officer wielding a bloodied machete-like weapon, his arm raised ready to strike an already wounded, helpless, and naked victim. The officer’s uniform is adorned with a badge with the letters PD, standing in for “police department,” clearly a narrative on police violence. And, he wears a swastika armband, alluding to the atrocities of the Nazis against the Jews in World War II.
There are four figures in this painting, and each of the subjects are creature-like, part human and part animal, further depicting an animalistic savagery and monster-like cruelty.
The officer stands in the light, in the center of the painting, his bloodied victim forced into the dark shadows of the right side of the scene. Below, in the corner, another victim crouches, holding one pale-skinned palm opened as a sign of surrender and with his anguished face upturned—he is pleading for mercy. At the left of the canvas, in the background, is a monstrous bug-eyed, hooded figure feasting on a bloodied arm. At his table is a decapitated head in a bowl. He sits, seemingly unfazed, in front of sunlit window where outside the viewer can see a town, like any small town, where atrocious crimes like this may be thought impossible.
“It’s a provocative and brutally honest painting.” I replied “Anything but pleasant and pretty.”
“But what do you see?” he asked, pushing me to be more explicit.
I turned looking at him, and redirected his question, “What do you see?”
He told me that he saw a pregnant woman who was afraid to bring her baby into this violent world, and her baby, somehow already knowing, was crying out in fearful agony inside her belly. I looked to the painting and tried to see what Woodrow saw. I realized he saw the hooded cannibalistic figure as a pregnant woman. Maybe my eyesight is better, and I had read the label next to the painting which undoubtedly influenced my perspective by the curator’s interpretation, so this was not what I saw. Woodrow’s vision brought to mind Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son which was painted during a time when Spain was consuming its children through wars and revolution. Through feeling the essence of the painting and knowing the violence and atrocities inflicted on black Americans due to racism, I could see what Woodrow saw.
We began talking about Henderson’s urgent and expressionistic style, his cathartic brushstrokes alluding to a need to paint an outcry that amplifies the voices of the dispossessed, those who too often endure the brutality of people with power.
Woodrow and I talked for nearly an hour, our conversation evolving from Henderson’s painting to our personal stories and the current political crisis. He told me that this painting spoke to him about police violence and the stop-and-frisk policies. We talked about choosing between lesser evils, about a presidential candidate who enforced that horrible law in his past yet now held possibility of putting our unpopular and destructive leader out of office. We talked about the evils of economic inequality ruining our city and nation. We talked about mass incarceration and how it victimizes the black community and the poor. We talked about how all lives matter.
“You don’t mention race.” Woodrow said to me. “You say this painting expresses militaristic oppression, but you won’t say it directly, like the artist does.”
I shared with Woodrow that my mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was able to escape with some of her family, but she experienced more loss and suffering in her youth than I could ever imagine. I suppose this is a reason this painting reached into my soul. Henderson was alluding to more than one people, he was speaking for people from different cultures who have been oppressed. In this painterly narrative, the artist reveals the harsh and unspoken atrocities of our histories: police brutality, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis. The cannibalism is a metaphor for people killing each other, society consuming itself with hatred and prejudice, bent on genocide. I didn’t say race—didn’t mention racial tension—because, perhaps, I hope that by not saying the word, it will go away. But I know this isn’t true. Woodrow said that my hope was naïve. I know this, too. We need to say it. Henderson painted it. We need to have truth and reconciliation in order to have reparation and restorative justice. We need a new leader (leaders), who will guide us there.
The museum was closing. It was time for me to leave and for Woodrow to go home. I will remember that exchange, sitting on a bench, as moment when art brought two people together.