Under Color of Law brings together works by five acclaimed African American artists—Terry Adkins, Nsenga Knight, Hank Willis Thomas, Nari Ward, and Carrie Mae Weems—to catalyze important conversations about race, privilege, speech, and historical memory.
The exhibition’s title refers to the legal term for the appearance of authority that covers the actions of police officers, judges, or other government officials, whether those actions are lawful or not. It is a statement about power, and an undeniably provocative name for an exhibition of contemporary art. But as a simple phrase, “under color of law” is also resonates metaphorically, calling to mind hierarchies amongst communities, the pressure applied by our civil institutions, and “color” as both a marker of identity and a gesture toward the way perceptions are often “colored” by individual experience.
Though it responds to a national climate of rising tension and protests surrounding the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities—especially after the high-profile grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.—Under Color of Law proposes a wider angle of view, one shaped not only by the quick conclusions of viral media and the 24-hour news cycle, but by layers of historical context.
The works presented here and in accompanying public programs make references to the early activism of W.E.B. Du Bois, the final speeches of Malcolm X, the lingering legacy of Jim Crow, the Voting Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, and the disturbing bureaucracy of current “stop-and-frisk” policies. Yet all of these issues point to the same essential dilemma, which is still at the forefront today—how should individuals respond to their perceptions of injustice?