By Art in America

July 14, 2020 10:59am

View of Juxtaposition Arts, Minneapolis, 2020.

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Portrait  of Roger Cummings, 2020.

Located in north Minneapolis, Juxtaposition Arts (called JXTA for short) is an art organization that encourages Black youths to take studio classes and workshops, collaborate on community-wide projects, and train alongside professional artists whose works are exhibited at the art center. Following the police killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis experienced extensive looting and violence as well as peaceful protests in opposition to police brutality. Below, artist and JXTA cofounder Roger Cummings discusses the impact of recent events on his community, along with related creative interests.

The energy has been a little weird since the movement to disband the police in Minneapolis. We’re very much in a transitional period. When we hear anything from gunshots to fireworks, there are no police to investigate. It’s not like it used to be. Everything is boarded up and looks a little dystopic. We had people coming to the neighborhood trying to break windows and set fires. That has died down now.

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Juxtaposition Arts felt the impact of Covid-19 early on. We employed about seventy people. Once we transitioned to the summer schedule, we reduced our staff by about half. We staggered schedules, mapped out where people should be, and implemented procedures for washing hands and taking temperatures. JXTA is still running, but it’s not as robust as it was in past summers.

Nate Young is an artist I’ve followed over the years. I knew him when he was young and have had the honor to watch his practice grow. He came to JXTA as an educator, doing projects like murals and shoe customization. His recent exhibition “The Transcendence of Time” at Monique Meloche in Chicago followed the narrative of his great-grandfather’s journals, from the man’s move North during the Great Migration through his attempted suicide later in life. The show connected larger historical events with personal memory and lived experience. Young’s works feature an intense yet somber layering of materials and information: each handcrafted wood reliquary contains a sheet of black plexiglass inscribed with an excerpt from his great-grandfather’s writing, and below each text is an exhumed bone from the body of the horse that his ancestor rode North; in the center of the gallery, vitrines full of horse bones appeared to be lit from a distance, but when one approached the cases, the lights turned off and the sound of clanking bones began to play. Strangely enough, Nate grew up one block away from where George Floyd was killed—and I grew up two blocks away. Recent events have made his show feel even timelier, and I hope the works are exhibited again when Covid-19 is over. People need to see them.

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Nate Young: A Horse, 2020, white
oak, horse bone, spray enamel on tinted acrylic, and LED, 23 1/2 by 16 by 7 1/4 inches (open), at Monique
Meloche, Chicago.

I connected with Frank Wilderson’s new book, Afropessimism, because it recounts some of his experiences growing up and living in Minneapolis. I’m interested in how he dissects slave-master relations and present-day social structures. The book opens up a dialogue about power dynamics and their effect on Black American history. Wilderson conveys this through the lens of a Black Marxist. His work speaks to the complexities of emancipation, reconstruction, and police relations. Wilderson couldn’t have known what was going to happen this year, but it’s as if he predicted the future. This volume speaks to what it feels like trying to build anew in Minneapolis.

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View of Juxtaposition Arts, Minneapolis, 2020.

The chief of police lives one block away from me—and if anybody can help transition the city police force, he would be the one to do it. But at some point over the last few weeks, everyone in our community has taken a turn guarding the area from looters—if not people who are setting fires and shooting up the place—instead of calling the police. We’re figuring out how we, as a community, can enact safety strategies. We’re working with our young people to help figure out how to stop theft and violence, and to attend to emergencies like car crashes. Who goes to the scene? How can we be trained to administer the necessary aid? On some level I feel afraid and apprehensive, but I’ve found comfort knowing that these topics are being addressed not only in Afropessimism but as part of an ongoing global conversation.

I’ve always been interested in the prison industrial complex. On the podcast “Ear Hustle,” former San Quentin inmate Earlonne Woods and visual artist Nigel Poor share the stories of people—prisoners, their family members, guards, the warden—who are involved with San Quentin prison. When I was growing up, San Quentin was always feared. It still has a death row, but now it also offers creative outlets for people to work through their trauma. One episode, “Misguided Loyalty,” was about a young man who killed a member of the Crips. When the gang couldn’t find him, they went to his house and killed his mom and little brother. He talked about having to live with those consequences behind bars. On the streets he was known as the Joker, but he has since shed that identity. Young people need to know that you can outgrow an idea of yourself.

“Ear Hustle” offers the opportunity to ask questions, which I did. I was struck by the interaction between the public and the guests, as well as the questions young people ask about the clothes prisoners used to wear and the music they listened to before their incarceration.

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Still from the television series “Watchmen.”COURTESY MARK HILL/HBO.

I find the characters in the television series “Watchmen” very relatable in their striving for justice. The show is set in a kind of parallel universe with an alternate history: Vietnam becomes the fifty-first state after the United States wins the Vietnam War; the Ku Klux Klan is present in a somewhat different form as the Seventh Kavalry; and the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and their descendants receive reparations. The first episode actually starts in 1921 with the massacre before jumping to 2019. Even though the characters are heroes with supernatural power, they are also incredibly flawed human beings. Their development is really important, and the show does a good job of not revealing everything about who they are and what their relationship is to one another right away. There’s a common misconception that if you do social justice work you must be a pure person, but the truth is that everyone has faults. In the series, just like in life, the good guys do not always win, but it’s about watching these flawed characters find their way through hardship.

I’m drawn to the podcast “13th Floor Lounge” for its behind-the-scenes discussions of art-making. There is an episode in which Theaster Gates talks about the relationship between creating art and artistically planning space and economies. Few artists can imagine creating a workforce development model for their neighborhood. But art practices need to be more than just an aesthetic.

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View of bubbles blowing off the roof of Juxtaposition Arts, Minneapolis, 2020.

“13th Floor Lounge” really advocates pushing art beyond simple aesthetics—a model we try to emulate in our conversations at JXTA. We’ve hosted visiting artists-in-residence—from Rick Lowe and Brett Cook to Marc Bamuthi Joseph and William Cordova—who show their art here and develop projects with the local youth. We facilitate crucial conversations about what these artists were doing when they were the kids’ ages and what they wish they had known before becoming artists. Like the Bauhaus or the MIT Media Lab, we mix contemporary art, graphic design, and architecture. People often think JXTA just does murals and graffiti, but we also create things like the first skate park in Minneapolis designed by young people. Through accessible community-centered programs, we’re trying to push the boundaries of what contemporary art can and should be.

On the rooftop, we created a giant bubble machine that blows bubbles into the intersection below to slow cars down. They go too fast, given the number of young people around here. Our intervention makes people happy, but also improves the safety of our community.

—As told to Francesca Aton

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