Ghost Light: Race and Representation at the Figge Art Museum with Jefferson Pinder

This essay appears as part of the series for Reflections on Jefferson Pinder's Ghost Light.

Depending on who you ask, the City of Davenport and the Quad Cities could be in two different hemispheres, let alone part of a single metropolitan area that straddles the same river. Similarly, asking one resident about the area’s history of race relations will garner a completely different answer than asking another—divergent views emerge depending on where in the Quad Cities the respondent lives, as well as their age, gender, race and personal experiences. The Midwest has had historically fraught racial dynamics, beginning with white colonialism that enslaved and decimated indigenous populations, continuing through the Great Migration and subsequent discrimination and segregation. These dynamics are still prevalent today as communities of color battle state-sanctioned violence in the form of police brutality without justice or accountability; at the same time these communities must survive federal neglect, as entire cities go years on end without access to healthy and affordable food, sustainable economic opportunity, or clean water. Even the seemingly sleepiest of Midwest cities are not exempt from this legacy.

Located on the Mississippi River just shy of the Illinois border, Davenport, Iowa makes up one quarter of the Quad Cities; directly across the river is Rock Island, Illinois, another quarter. While Rock Island and Davenport are not large in comparison to nearby Chicago, in many ways their residents deal with more inner city violence than a big city like Chicago does. Though technically in two different states, residents of the Quad Cities share public spaces such as jobs, grocery stores, schools, parks and museums. There is a spirit of camaraderie and mutual benefit alongside feelings of animosity and jealousy, both of which come with communal resources. This tension can be traced through the area’s history of unbalanced neighborhood funding and unequal treatment of citizens; despite this history there remains a paradoxical sense of neighborly friendliness that is common in many Midwestern communities.

The Figge Art Museum, founded in 1928 and located in Davenport, is one of the oldest art institutions in the United States. Despite nearly a century of institutional memory, its identity is still evolving as it susses out its place within the community. In 2015, after having been included in group and solo shows, the Figge director of exhibitions, Andrew Wallace, commissioned an exhibition from visual artist Jefferson Pinder, titled Ghost Light. The subject of the exhibition was a challenge to both the Figge and the community at large: to look at itself through the eyes of the ‘other.’ Specifically, through the eyes of the Black community, which historically have not been at the forefront of Figge exhibitions or programming.

Jefferson Pinder, originally from Maryland, is an interdisciplinary artist and professor based in Chicago. He utilizes a wide range of mediums that include performance, digital and video pieces, and multimedia objects. The themes of his work touch on corporeality and Blackness, and he strives to provoke critical thinking and dialogue around representation, visual tropes, and myths in today’s highly polarized society. A signature feature of his work is to create interaction between visitor and art in order to fully activate the piece. All of these elements were present in Ghost Light.

Charged by the Figge to open a dialogue around race in the Quad Cities, and given few direction or resources beyond funding, Pinder’s process spanned over a year and ultimately resulted in an array of exhibits that investigated this prompt from both personal and public perspectives: three performances and discussions that took place within the galleries (Token, Joe’s Barbershop, and Soule Bowl), two video installations (The Conversation and Hairstyle), an audio recording (Night Train), two objects (Colored Entranced and Invisible Flag), and an eponymous ghost light fixture. The symbol of the ghost light references the theatrical superstition in which the darkened stage is illuminated by a light, often a single electric bulb mounted to a stand, intended to ward off the theater’s ghosts.

Pinder’s hope was that as the exhibition unfolded, previously overlooked aspects of the community would be revealed. His approach was to build in-depth relationships with members of the community, because as an outsider to the Quad Cities he recognized that including community voices was imperative and indeed the only way to honestly and accurately create this exhibition. The process and resulting show took the community and the artist on an emotional journey that provoked more questions than it left answered.

As he built these relationships, Pinder discovered how wildly varied memories and opinions about the area’s racial history were. Moving throughout the city offers a barrage of racist symbols in everyday places; the Confederate flag is quietly omnipresent in Davenport. The ever-present symbol of the South led to the creation of Invisible Flag, which invites viewers to ask themselves which flag is truly representative of the United States.

Already closely related to his work outside the Figge, Pinder began to examine the discrepancies between white and African American recollections of racial unrest, and came to specifically hone in on a weeklong confrontation that broke out after the 1972 Soule Bowle football game at Rock Island High School. The aftermath of these riots are still felt in the Black community today—a traumatic incident that was swept under the rug, the conflict continues to exert its presence long after the event itself.

Residents of the Quad Cities are in acute disagreement about what exactly unfolded during the week of clashes between police, students, and community members—with some folks wildly dramatizing their memories, recalling gunshot victims and Black Panther reinforcements, neither of which happened. The tension between these contradictory memories was presented and explored in Soule Bowl, a discussion with arts organizer Gaye Shannon-Burnett, who was there during the riots. Shannon-Burnett was a voice for the Black community before and after the riots, and used the Ghost Light discussion as a chance to share her experience as a Black woman attending the integrated high school.

The Conversation, a video piece featuring a wordless exchange between a Black woman and white woman who were each present during the riots, is remarkable both because of how much information is exchanged nonverbally and because finding a white participant in Davenport was exceedingly difficult; white residents of Davenport refused to discuss race in the open forum offered by Pinder. The white woman, Cheryl Lafferty, was ultimately flown in from out-of-state to participate. Both the discussion and the video piece are illustrative of Davenport’s willingness and unwillingness to discuss what happened and in turn, where the state of race relations is today.

Excerpts of Pinder’s conversations with various community members came together in Night Train, a disorienting collection of ambient city sounds and snippets of dialogue about the status afforded to the Black community while growing up in Davenport. The disconnect between white and Black perspectives as colored by access becomes even more evident when presented without visual accompaniment.

Joe McLemore, a 74-year old barber and outspoken elder, gave haircuts in the gallery while discussing his experiences as a Black man in the community to create Joe’s Barbershop. Pinder recreated a barber’s station in the museum and adorned it with pictures and flyers relevant to Black men. McLemore’s contributions to Ghost Light provided a warm and familiar space for the white community to learn about the prejudiced experiences their African American neighbors have endured. The related piece Hairstyle was an installation of TV screens stacked atop one another, each broadcasting a different hairstyle worn by a collection of men who passed through the barbershop on a day in January.

Token, the first to take place of the three performances, featured a conservative white Midwestern artist that exercises his right as an artist to sculpt from black models. He sculpted one such piece and discussed his own complicated relationship to race live from a platform in a corner of the gallery. Though infuriating on the surface—the appropriation of Black imagery without acknowledgment of the culture and struggles that produced it is widely unacceptable in today’s society—the discussion provided a glimpse into the many complexities surrounding race and representation. For all of its value, this performance was not originally part of the exhibition. What was slated in its place was a performance centered around Virgil Mayberry, an enigma by all accounts.

Virgil Mayberry is a self-proclaimed redneck, city alderman, collector of racist memorabilia such as sambos and confederate medals, and former John Deere factory worker. He carries a KKK medal cross as a token on his person, and he is Black. Defying all expectations of what Midwestern Black identity “should” be, Mayberry is representative of the parallel between Davenport and the African American community. Treated as perpetual outsiders within their own city, to be Black in the Quad Cities—and too often, in America at large—is to understand that you don’t really belong, but to know regardless that you still have to make a place for yourself. Mayberry’s way of making a place for himself was to both suppress and express his Blackness through material and metaphorical ownership of racist imagery. And while his performance (originally intended to explore Mayberry’s perplexing and nuanced interpretation of his culture) never panned out, the relationship between the two left an indelible impact on Pinder and Mayberry continues to offer a unique perspective on what it means to be Black in the Midwest.

Identity, especially when distilled through race, is not monolithic. Exhibitions like Ghost Light can only scratch the surface of one community’s multifaceted history through interrelated but separate experiences. The stories and voices of the community members who chose to (or ultimately chose not to) participate were never meant to be a comprehensive representation of the Black experience in Davenport. Acknowledging that the charge presented by the Figge cannot be fully accomplished in one singular exhibition, Pinder left the Quad Cities community with more questions than answers about how far they’ve come and how far they’ve yet to go. Have they in fact, progressed at all in light of increasing national xenophobia and racism? How much can one’s perception, memory, and deeply held beliefs be changed by a limited series of dialogic performances? How does the museum play a role in helping the community continue to explore its own history? In the absence of a performance, the theatrical ghost light becomes representative of all of the lives and narratives that have inhabited that space—Ghost Light as created by Jefferson Pinder came to be that representation for Davenport too. Throughout the show’s time at the Figge, Pinder opened a door for the community to see the disparate worlds contained within the same city: the community must now decide whether to keep that door open.