Panel at Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body at Contemporary Art Museum, September 2016. Photo by Jasmine Mahmoud.

This project considers the materials—paste, plywood, paint, grass, and dirt—of art made in reaction to the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. It asks: what can attention to aesthetic materials, and their discourses, reveal about segregation and spatial racism in St. Louis in the 2010s?

Sites are ephemeral, and include Ferguson, MO businesses where in 2014 St. Louis artist Damon Davis pasted posters onto plywood boarding those businesses. The image of each poster: a set of hands from children and adults of various races. “All Hands On Deck” was an art project begun by Damon Davis to engage feelings of racial inequality and unrest shaping the movement emerging from Michael Brown’s murder. Covering part of the plywood, the posters appeared as an iterative array, each was positioned next to another making horizontal rows on businesses such as Ferguson Market & Liquor, Prime Time Beauty & Barber, and Crystal Nails.

Sites also include lawns where pairs of arms rise. Each pair is a “lawn sculpture” representing human arms and hands. Each rises some two feet tall; each appears as a flattened two-dimensional representation in black; each begins in the grass seemingly where the elbow would start. Most sculptures end two-to-three-feet off the ground with fingertips of each hand outstretched. Some pairs vary, and find one hand with outstretched fingers and the other hand with fingers closed in a fist. This was “Hands Up,” sculptures by Damon Davis and Basil Kincaid; the title evokes what many witnesses to Michael Brown’s death recall were his last words “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.”

Questions linking aesthetic materiality to race reverberate in post-Ferguson St. Louis, especially due to controversy following Direct Drive. The 2016 exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) featured works by American artist Kelley Walker. “AquaFresh plus Crest with Whitening (Trina)” included an oversized print of a King magazine cover with the image of the rapper Trina; Walker manipulated that image by smearing it with toothpaste and by mounting the image both on the wall and on the floor. Toothpaste evoked semen; the position on the floor allowed museum visitors to step upon an image of Trina’s, a black woman’s, body. In “Black Star Press,” Walker blotted images from the Civil Rights movement with chocolate.

At an artist talk on September 17, 2016 at CAM, Kelley Walker was unable to articulate why he used those substances to smear and obliterate images of black bodies; more broadly he was unable to articulate his ideas on race, materiality, and art. In the week following, several things happened: artists including Damon Davis called for a boycott of Direct Drive (Davis wrote on a public Facebook post “If you are an artist and you are making work that is specifically racially and sexually charged, if you use black people for props in your work, then at least be ready to explain yourself”); a previously scheduled talk “Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body” at CAM was retooled to discuss the controversy with a panel featuring a cohort of black St. Louis artists, and a standing room crowd of over 300 attendees.

This paper situates materiality, and does so within each object’s geography (quasi-public space of a boarded up business, museum space, private lawnspace and public park space) and the collection of policies, economies, and cultural practices that produced those geographies. It also does so alongside ethnographic interviews with artists and curators, and analysis of policy related to the life and death of Michael Brown such as municipal fines in Ferguson, MO and the 2015 Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department report filed by the United States Department of Justice. It asks what do materials used for art, and discourses around those materials, reveal about racial segregation in post-Ferguson St. Louis? This paper seeks to connect materiality of art to spatial racism and racist policies, and more broadly to racial geographies that emerged in St. Louis in the 2010s.

Basketball Court, St. Louis Place Park
John Early

Markings on one of the four poles at the basketball court in St. Louis Place Park. October 31, 2016. Photo by John Early.

Christ the King UCC, Florissant
Laurie Maffly-Kipp

Christ the King UCC. Photo by Maffley-Kipp.

Confederate Memorial
David Cunningham
Nicole Fox
Christina Simko

The Confederate Memorial in Forest Park, defaced
as an act of protest following the Charleston church shootings in
June 2015. Image from https://www.rt.com/usa/269527-confederate-black-lives-matter/

Confederate Memorial in Forest Park
Matthew Fox-Amato

Forest Park Confederate Memorial, 2016. Photo by Matthew Fox-Amato.

Cook Avenue
Joshua Aiken

4004 and 4008 Cook Avenue,

December 24th, 2016, Photo by Joshua Aiken.

Delmar Boulevard
Eric Sandweiss

5500 block of Delmar, c. 1930; Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection, Missouri Historical Society: http://collections.mohistory.org/resource/143130.html

Eads Bridge
Jonathan Karp

Black East St. Louisans attempt to cross the Eads Bridge during the 1987 Veiled Prophet Fair. 

“4 Jul 1987, Page 5 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://www.newspapers.com/image/142332505/?terms=eads.

Fairground Park Pool, O'Fallon
Michael Allen

African-American and Caucasian Children at Fairground Swimming Pool, June 21, 1949 Source: Missouri Digital Heritage (http://cdm16795.contentdm.oclc...)

Ferguson
Jasmine Mahmoud

Panel at Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body at Contemporary Art Museum, September 2016. Photo by Jasmine Mahmoud.

LaClede Town
Benjamin Looker

Two boys at the LaClede Town housing complex, in a Post-Dispatch photo taken in 1968.

Image found at  https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/141859001/

McRee town
Patty Heyda

3968-70 McRee Ave, McRee Town/ St. Louis. Photo credit Jim Roos (2001).


National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Redevelopment District, Northside
Heidi Kolk

“St. Louis Wins!,” public mailer sent by the Washington D.C. Office of Congressman William Lacy Clay to St. Louisans in June of 2016. 

The copy reads: “Selected For New Western NGA Headquarters | Largest Federal Investment in the History of The City of St. Louis | North St. Louis selected as preferred site for the new $1.7 billion western headquarters of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency!”

On the reverse side of the mailer, which also includes conceptual drawings of the NGA site and a photograph of city officials at a press conference in which the big news was announced, Clay explains the decision to located the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s new western office as an “unprecedented, transformational opportunity to focus $1.7 billion, the largest federal investment in the history of the City of St. Louis, within the core of [the city’s] new designed HUD Promise Zone to advance my long-standing congressional priroities of bringing jobs, new federal resources and technological innovation to distressed urban neighborhoods in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District.”

Powell Hall
Patrick Burke

Grand Foyer of St. Louis Theater (now Powell Hall), 1925. Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society http://collections.mohistory.org/resource/145282.html

The “Love Bank” Basketball Court and Gentrification on Cherokee Street
Douglas Flowe

Love Bank Basketball Court on Cherokee Street. Photo by Douglas Flowe.

Washington Park Cemetery
Denise Ward-Brown

Headstones of Friends Rebecca Edward & William Maul at Washington Park Cemetery. This is a video still from Home Going, Denise Ward-Brown, 2016. Large clean-up jobs, like this fallen tree, go left undone as volunteers continue to clear and maintain the grounds of Washington Park Cemetery. Photo credit: Denise Ward-Brown (2016).

Wellston Loop Pavillion (1909)
Iver Bernstein

Wellston Loop Pavillion (1909). Photo 2006 by Gary R. Tetley, “Eleven Most Endangered Places, 2007,” Landmarks Association of St. Louis: http://www.landmarks-stl.org/enhanced_and_endangered/eleven_most_endangered_places_2007, accessed on February 26, 2017.  Note that there is no commercial use of this structure at the present time (2.26.17).