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Arts criticism: Anti-police brutality art show at Mama Buzz

on February 27, 2009

By Madeleine Bair/Special to Oakland North

Lisa Calderon, the curator of Mama Buzz gallery, spent a recent Friday tacking labels to a wall in last-minute preparation of her latest show: an artistic response to the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old from Hayward who was fatally shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Years day.

One mile south, a few hundred people—surrounded by police officers—assembled in downtown Oakland for what has become a common sight in the East Bay this year: a protest over Grant’s killing. The rally was peaceful and had a somewhat somber tone, as its theme was remembering victims of police brutality. T-shirts and posters displayed faces of those killed in California in recent memory—Andrew Moppin, Jody Woodfox, Mark Garcia—along with the now ubiquitous photograph of a smiling young Grant sporting a moustache and sock cap. The signs were artless, urgent, and personal—cardboard and Sharpie placards with the name of a victim, or the words “Don’t shoot me.”

Calderon’s opening was not meant to coincide with the protest but with Art Murmur, a popular monthly gallery walk. Yet the Anti-Police Brutality Artshow could inject a bit of aesthetic pizzazz to the grassroots movement.

The show, on display through February, consists of three dozen works by a dozen artists. It is a mixed bag, reflecting the urgent nature of its planning. There are works recycled from past protests of police killings, like the large oil pastel of a bloody Rodney King that had gathered dust in a basement for 16 years; an illustration of a porky policeman wielding a bloodstained knife and a drooling grin as if he had just devoured a victim; screen prints of those shot by police, calling for justice; blurry black and white photographs from the January 7th Oakland riot that had followed Grant’s killing, their glass frames intentionally fractured and taped like the vandalized store windows that resulted from the mayhem.

Like the recent protests, which have called for everything from a life sentence for Mehserle to the firing of the BART director and an end to the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the group show meanders in various directions, leaving the viewer without any cohesive assessment on the topic.

In her curatorial statement, Calderon states that the exhibit is the product of her “need to have change and to have dialogue.” Yet it is hard to imagine where such dialogue would begin, as much of the work leans more toward radical propaganda than penetrating artistic reflections.

Take the series of tri-color screen prints by Ryan Saari, “Starpig 1-6.” The 18×22” serigraphs are based on photographs of police in riot gear, their digitally edited faces completely washed out. Among the images are Saari’s “starpig” icon—the 7-point star of police department logos containing the face of a swine. Similar depictions of cop=evil imagery abound, as in a T-shirt screen print by Jon Paul Bail of acquitted Rodney King officer Sergeant Koon with red eyes, horns, and a devil’s tail.

Despite such aggressive visuals, contradictory messages indicate that the artists are not always sure what statement they want to make. One piece seemingly intending to incite dialogue is a black and white screen print of Johannes Mehserle, the BART officer who has been changed with the murder of Grant, behind bars. The image is sandwiched by the words “Riots Work!” The exhibit label credits the work to “A Society for Dialogue,” yet no artist at the opening reception would claim the piece nor “dialogue” about it. Instead, the artists pointed to a statement on the wall about the print. “Video tapes and witnesses are nothing new in cases of police brutality,” it reads. “So why is Joseph [sic] Mehserle being charged with murder?”

It is a provocative point—would the officer have been charged as severely, or even at all, had a violent protest on January 7th not drawn worldwide attention to the incident? Yet the paragraph above that line reads like an apology for raising such a question. “The artists in no way condone the destruction of independent businesses nor the vehicles of individuals,” which is exactly what transformed the protest into a riot. What, then, does the artist really think of the riot? Without a willing representative from the Society for Dialogue, it is hard to know.

Given the subject matter of police brutality, an issue inexorably associated with issues of race in this country, it is disappointing that the artists are overwhelmingly white, and not quite “local,” as earlier statements by the curator indicated, but from suburban hamlets like Alameda and Petaluma. This fact shades one’s response to a piece like Brianna Lengel Bail’s cartoon-style serigraph. Segmented into four frames, the print portrays, first, an officer on a BART platform eying a passenger whose hands are in the pockets of his checkered hoodie. The man’s face is blank, but for the words, “Your Name Here.” The following three frames depict an upheld police baton, an assault (“Bang,” “Pow,” “OMG”), and the crime scene of a murder. It is a striking stylized depiction of police brutality, but given the text in the passenger’s face, one must wonder if the artist, a white young woman, could have been a victim like Oscar Grant.

The most effective works of the show grab the viewer through expressions of grief and humanity rather than facile propaganda and stereotypes of the police. Design team Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes contribute three screen prints using subdued colors and digital images of Grant, Annette Garcia, and Andrew Moppin—three recent victims of police killings in California—to call for justice. The smiling portrait of Grant made of dripping liquid black gunpowder on brown paper by Cory Doyle is moving in the simplicity of its image and medium. Like the handmade signs at the February 6th protest, these pieces reveal that immortalizing victims can be more moving than demonizing perpetrators.

It is hard to tell how much dialogue any of the works incited at the buzzing opening reception. As at most Art Murmur events, scenesters in tight pants crowding the gallery room seemed to respond more to calls for $2 PBR and tips for after-parties than to the art on the walls. Writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara famously stated, “the role of the revolutionary artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Yet few at Mama Buzz seemed aware of that evening’s rally for Oscar Grant. Some left with free Starpig stickers or T-shirts stating “defend Oakland” with an image of an automatic rifle below the text. Like Facebook petitions or kaffiyeh scarves sold at Urban Outfitters, the anti-establishment art does not make the revolution irresistible as much as it makes revolutionary propaganda trendy.

When Mama Buzz closed its doors at 9 o’clock, hundreds of twenty-somethings lingered in the nearby intersection, munching on street food, and swilling down PBR and plastic cups of wine. As they reveled in the artsy diversion, not one police car was in sight.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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