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Review :: Police and Prisons : Politics : Race
07 Jan 2017
“…right now being born a girl is to be born threatened…” – Ntozake Shange

(CAMBRIDGE, MA) with the Christmas holiday rapidly approaching, a limited audience gathered at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard University, for a riveting performance of a work challenging issues of race, gender, violence and indefensible doings by segments of the law enforcement community. There, Dell M. Hamilton built upon the current exhibition of Carrie May Weems’, “I once knew a girl…” with her one woman, compelling work, “BLUES/BLANK/BLACK”, a complex, superbly performed piece of truth telling. With song and fairytale, with spoken text and gesture and invocation, Hamilton led the assembled through the galley as a stunned chorus from a painful Greek tragedy, like the confused citizens of Thebes…or somewhere.

This presentation begins with the sound of heels approaching on the marble gallery floor followed Ms. Hamilton’s entry. “Hello”, she says. She begins taking things from a shoulder bag…things, a blond wig, which she puts on…a black doll’s head, which she puts a white face paint on, and sheets of white paper, each with a name written on it…Rekia Boyd…Delores Epps…Felicia Thomas…and hands them randomly to the spectators. Names she'll repeat, souls we should remember. “I once knew a girl”, she says somewhat sadly, “if they erase you, they erase me”, then breaks into song in her blue satin-esque dress, the artist as hipster. There's a lot going on in this opening salvo, activity one need pay heed, and, "stay woke", as they say.

She was to later share, “The doll is complicated…I’m interested in folklore/fairytales, narrative and literature, but also in how the genres shape gender – specifically girlhood and womanhood.” Continuing, “So since the exhibition was titled, ‘I once knew a girl’, it just reminded me of how many conversations young girls have with their dolls…convos that are obviously make-believe but profound and intimate for a young child. The ability to imagine and re-imagine gets lost as you get older and I always want to get back to that wondrous place.”…place as ancient as the scriptures and as fresh as Picasso. Twenty-two year old Rekia Boyd, an African-American woman, was shot and killed by an off-duty Chicago police detective who’d fired multiple shots from a car over his shoulder hitting her in the back of the head. The detective claimed someone with Ms. Boyd held a gun, but it proved to be a cellphone. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, the detective was cleared.“Rekia Boyd”, Hamilton calls out as she moves through the gallery. “Rekia, Rekia, Rekia”. Responses to the killing of women of color appear muted compare to those of males. As Ms. Hamilton points out, “Media coverage has been significantly bent toward the omission of women.” She continues her mobile performance, “If they erase you… they erase me,” while giving rise to the human element of that icy fact.

At points she launches into song..."Why Was I Born", The Cranberries, "Linger", and the haunting, "Down by The Water" by The Drums which she loads up with frequency for the wrenching rendezvous she's chosen. "I try to pick songs that suit my voice, but that also either have questions in them", Hamilton says, "exploit the architecture (in this case the gallery) or sound of a site or that somehow convey a kind of 'hurt so good' feeling. There is more white paper, more names.

Eleanor Bumpurs, an African-American woman was shot and killed by New York City police who shot her twice with a 12-gauge shot gun. They'd been sent to enforce a city ordered eviction. from her apartment. When Ms. Bumpers refused to open the door, police broke in. "Eleanor Bumpers, Eleanor Bumpers, Eleanor Bumpers", intones Hamilton.

Gracefully woven into her dynamic performance, are Ms. Hamilton's risky, fluid and supple costume change maneuvers...slipping into a sophisticated white gown as the traveling house looks on, with the other toward the conclusion when she briefly slips from view to apply a white face and flowing, robe-esque garment and reshapes into Spanish and sings Marc Anthony's, "Contra La Corriente. There is more white paper here, more names

54 year old Delores Epps and her 13 year old daughter were killed in Memphis, Tenn when a police officer, responding to a call slammed into her car. He'd not activated his lights or siren.

And there are others Ms. Hamilton reminds us of and calls to the ball. Falicia Thomas, Terika Wilson, Sandra Bland, Debra Danner, of who she speaks, "she was not lost because no one was looking for her." And there are others. Too many others not on the performance's roll.

"My art needs to move around", says Hamilton. "Last year I felt un-moored. I'd been to a vigil for Bland and Eric Gardner. I re-read (Morrison's) ‘Bluest Eye’. Without Morrison and Carrie (Carrie Mae Weems) I wouldn't exist. Of course, I use, ‘Beloved’. Continuing, "The take away is, look up the names...I'll do this 'till there are no more.”

This work is in the public domain
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