A Site of Struggle - Frequently Asked Questions: Block Museum - Northwestern University
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A Site of Struggle - Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the Block Museum organizing this exhibition?

Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art has become renowned for exhibitions that focus on crucial but understudied art histories. The Block has achieved national acclaim for curating groundbreaking traveling exhibitions and authoring scholarly publications that ask audiences to rethink assumptions about whose and what stories are told. A Site of Struggle will build on this legacy and the Block’s commitment to developing new scholarship in the field of American art.


Was the university involved in the organization of the exhibition?

Over five years in planning, A Site of Struggle has involved Northwestern faculty, students and staff from across the University, and organizations within Evanston, strengthening the museum's role as a bridge between campus and community. The exhibition builds on Northwestern’s ongoing social justice commitments and expands the conversation about racial equity on campus and beyond.


Why does this exhibition belong at Northwestern?

Universities, including Northwestern University, have long served an important role as incubators for intellectual debate and activism, which are vital in challenging the status quo, affirming our values as an institution and a society, and finding solutions to global problems.

Northwestern is the intellectual home to several prominent scholars of African American studies working across the fields of art history, film studies, history, literature, performance studies, psychology, and sociology, who will actively use the exhibition as a resource through curricular engagement and co-curricular programming.

Northwestern is also home to the Black Arts Consortium, which cultivates an interdisciplinary approach to Black arts. Launched in 2012, BAC seeks to engage myriad perspectives, strengthen Northwestern’s involvement in Black arts, and connect with a broader community of scholars, practitioners and community members through research, pedagogy, practice, and civic and community engagement. 

The Evanston and Chicago areas are sites of several current anti-violence movements and a hub of historical African American activism and cultural production. The narrative traced by A Site of Struggle resonates and intersects with these efforts. For example, Chicago was the home to anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), whose 1895 pamphlet A Red Record influenced one of the exhibition’s themes.

This cultural geography makes Northwestern a fertile and appropriate ground for developing this exhibition, whose subject matter will find resonance with the campus community, as well as with the larger regional and national public and community of scholars.

 We recognize that Northwestern University is and has been a site where Black students, faculty, and staff have sought visibility for their lived experience and fought for racial equity and where Evanston’s Black communities have experienced personal and systemic injustices. One of our central missions as a University is to constantly learn and grow, and we present this exhibition as an opportunity for conversation around histories of racial harm.


In light of this exhibition, what are the Block’s greater commitments to diversity, equity, access and inclusion?

The Block Museum recognizes that an exhibition on this topic can only be advanced successfully by an organization that is reckoning with its own responsibilities and context regarding systemic racism. In addition to Northwestern's commitments to advancing social justice, we, as a museum, aspire to be an institution in which the values of diversity, equity, access and inclusion (DEAI) are fully present in the who, what, where, when, why and how of our work. Further, we acknowledge that centering diverse identities and perspectives within the museum is essential to our institutional excellence and sustainability. Through commitments in the ten areas of 1) staff, 2) leadership, 3) advisors, 4) campus community, 5) collecting, 6) programming, 7) partnering and hosting, 8) eliminating barriers, 9) accessibility and 10) accountability and transparency, we seek to embody the ideals to which we aspire. [Read the statement]


Is this exhibition a response to current events?

Yes and no. This exhibition was conceived in 2016 and was developed from the perspective that anti-Black violence is not a new subject within American art.  While the exhibition does not directly address recent acts of anti-Black violence of the last eight years and the impactful art made in response, the current climate informs the exhibition’s presentation and the resources provided to visitors. Through the examination of different artistic strategies and visual choices artists and activists have used to grapple with this violence over a 100+ year period of American art, the project provides deeper context for contemporary debates and current movements for justice.


Who is behind this exhibition?

A Site of Struggle is curated by Janet Dees, an African American scholar, who has served as the Block’s curator of modern and contemporary art since 2015. Trained as an historian of American art, Dees has organized numerous exhibitions and produced new commissions with a wide range of contemporary artists. Her research and curatorial expertise include the work of African American and Native American artists; the depiction of African Americans in U.S. visual culture; the relationship between performance art and the archive; and the ways in which contemporary artists engage with history.

Alisa Swindell, the Block’s curatorial research associate, assisted Dees on the project. Swindell is a specialist in African American art and the history of photography.  A Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Illinois Chicago, Swindell will be the associate curator of photography at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College starting in January 2022. The themes and content of the exhibition and companion publication were developed with the input of a group of scholarly advisors, including Sampada Aranke, La Tanya Autry, Courtney R. Baker, Leslie M. Harris, LaCharles Ward and Mlondi Zondi

The intersection of race and representation has been a concern throughout the career of the Block’s director, Lisa Corrin, who was the curator of Fred Wilson’s 1992 field-shifting exhibition Mining the Museum, in which the artist re-presented the collection of a Southern historical society from an African American perspective.


What does the exhibition contain? 

The exhibition includes approximately 65 objects of art and ephemera primarily created between the 1890s and 2013 loaned from a range of national private and public collections. It includes some post-2013 works that take historical incidents as their subject matter. 

Bracketed by two critical periods of activism, the 1890s anti-lynching campaigns of the post-Reconstruction period and the 2013 founding of Black Lives Matter, the exhibition evokes the unbroken history of violence against African Americans in the United States, and importantly foregrounds African Americans as active shapers of visual discourse, and not only its victims.

The exhibition is organized into three thematic sections. The first section, A Red Record, explores how graphic depictions of violence were enlisted to protest horrors like lynchings. Works in the second section, Abstraction and Affect, employ conceptual strategies and varying degrees of abstraction to avoid literal representations of violence. Works in the third section, Written on the Body, explore subtler allusions to and forms of violence, such as psychological impacts of racism, through engagement with the body.


Does the exhibition include images of violence? Do we need to see these? Can children visit the exhibition?

The exhibition honors the purposeful choices that artists have made to use the subject of anti-Black violence as a way to subvert the narratives and actors of these forms of oppression. As a result, the exhibition does contain images of violence as one of the methods that artists have used protest, process, mourn and memorialize anti-Black violence. We recognize that there may be a range of opinions about why and if these images should be displayed.

Some artwork within the exhibition will be behind closed sightlines, so that visitors may choose to encounter images in which violence is most direct. The Block is free and open to all and will not regulate visitation, however it should be noted that subject matter and content is mature.


Are all the artists in the exhibition African American?

Most, but not all. By looking at the 100-year history of artist engagement with this subject the exhibition offers compelling art histories of interracial collaboration. The exhibition includes works by non-Black artists that were enlisted by Black activists or who have conscientiously engaged with the subject matter.


How is this exhibition different than other projects in this topic? Is it in dialogue with other discussions or movements that are underway? 

The exhibition is among the first to take on this subject with a long view of American art history, demonstrating that anti-Black violence is not a new subject for American artists. Through examination of different artistic strategies and visual choices artists and activists have used to grapple with this violence over a 100+ year period of American art it provides context for contemporary debates.

Unlike some recent exhibitions, A Site of Struggle was not developed in response to a specific incident of violence and doesn’t focus solely on contemporary. art.


How will the exhibition provide resources and support for visitors? 

The museum is taking a number of steps to shape the experience of this impactful exhibition and provide resources for audiences. The exhibition will include a moderate number of works, supporting the exhibition concept without overwhelming audiences. Its design will allow for visual and psychological rest. And there will be signage and controlled sightlines to the most graphic materials, so visitors can decide if and how to engage with those works.

Dedicated spaces to provide feedback and for quiet reflection will allow visitors the opportunity to individually process thoughts and emotions elicited by the exhibition before leaving the museum and engaging in other activities.

In addition, the installation will offer access to additional resources related to the exhibition’s themes, including materials about campus groups and local social justice organizations, to provide support, encourage additional learning, and provide options for more active engagement with the issues raised by the exhibition.


Questions have been raised recently, in relation to several art exhibitions and public artworks, about who has the right to make and display artworks contesting and contending with anti-Black violence. How has this exhibition learned lessons from past exhibitions and projects on this topic?

The strategy for presenting A Site of Struggle has been deeply informed by discussions with colleagues in the art museum field to identify and implement best practices for presenting exhibitions that engage with difficult subject matter, particularly around the issue of racial violence. The enacted strategies include community and campus conversations about the exhibition that have been underway since early 2021, setting the groundwork and context for the exhibition, and helping the museum understand concerns, reservations, and points of resonance.

Northwestern’s faculty and students have a track record of research on these topics which will allow for informed research and education, while the Block’s recent exhibition history demonstrates the museum’s commitment to diverse voices, presenting difficult topics and broadening narratives. There are plans to support every level of the staff and all audiences with the difficult imagery and the difficult conversations the exhibition might generate.


When is the exhibition at the Block Museum?

The exhibition opens at the Block on January 26, 2022 and will be on view until July 10, 2022.


Will the exhibition travel?

The exhibition will travel to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama August 13-Novemebr 6, 2022. Montgomery is an important city in the history of the battle for African American civil rights in the United States, and includes many important landmark institutions such as Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It is the home of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorializes thousands of lynchings that occurred across the U.S.


Who is this exhibition for? Why does it matter now? 

We believe that this exhibition can have resonance for anyone who is interested in understanding and connecting America’s past and our current moment of racial reckoning.  Artists have long offered us tools of repair. This exhibition showcases artworks that offer possibilities to protest, process, mourn, and memorialize anti-Black violence. In addition, the exhibition seeks to raise public awareness about the long history of anti-Black violence in the United States -- a history that has been inconsistently and incompletely taught. We hope that this recognition will enable visitors to approach current conversations with awareness and a better-informed perspective.