Renee Billingslea’s Emotion-Packed Show at Michael Rosenthal Contemporary Art
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Michael Rosenthal’s Gallery on Valencia Street in San Francisco has the chic no-nonsense rawness of florescent lights, concrete floors and unpainted plywood walls. Renee Billingslea’s exhibition, Rooted in America, has the same quality of getting us right to the point. It is specifically about racial violence and lynching. It is also about the people on both sides of this miserable memory that won’t go away, and the importance of remembering that we all are capable of the unspeakable.

In her work with photography, fabric and mixed media, Billingslea’s installations are full of impact. Focus is on the experiences of the perpetrators and witnesses to lynchings in a series of carefully executed paper mach√© men’s hats in a fashion from the early 20th Century. They are discolored and made to look like fossilized museum pieces. Each hat is constructed of innumerable slips of paper that bear one repeated sentence, ostensibly from someone in the crowd. “I stoked the fire.” “I tore off his clothes.” “I tied his hands.” “They used my chain.” “I hear him screaming.” “Daddy let me watch from his shoulders.” “I hear him pray.” “I smell his burning flesh.”

Renee Billingslea’s hats evoke the witnessing to lynching in the America.

Following this row of hats from left to right, the viewer arrives at the photograph of the lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, in 1916 in Waco, Texas. Around fifteen thousand men, women and children are reputed to have watched this event. Washington was mentally challenged. In the photograph, his naked burning body, chained to a tree, can be seen surrounded by hundreds of closely packed men all dressed in their white shirts and gentlemanly Sunday go-to-meeting hats.

More supplemental information provided in the gallery tells us “between 1882 and 1968, over Four Thousand Six Hundred people were lynched. The victims were of all ages, race and genders. The majority of the people lynched were African American men, many under the age of eighteen‚ĶMany victims today are still unidentified: it is said that for every name known, four names are unknown.”

Billingslea addresses the fading memory of all the victims, some of whose names remain unknown.

On a dark blood red wall, an uncounted number of men’s white shirts, now discolored and a part of our dishonored history are casually hung in two rows one above the other. Each one has a tag hanging from it that offers small bits of basic information on the lynching victim. Tags that hang unceremoniously from the toe of a corpse, come to mind. They seem to ask “Can’t we do better?” and beg the question “When will we begin to respect and honor all those individuals who lost their identity, dignity and humanity in this sad epoch of history?” Billingslea returns a bit of care to each by embroidering the details of name, place, age, etc. onto each tag. “Emitt Till, 14 years old.”

Billingslea’s books recall encoded messages on skin color difference and the lost history of individual slaves.

Billingslea examines other aspects of racism in her book series. An old book lying flat on a shelf opens to reveal an illustration of Africans rowing in the hold of a ship, (we know they are propelling themselves to a life of slavery in the “new world”). Again the remnants of their individuality and identities are reduced to an index of simple name-tags sticking out of a recess cut into the pages of the book. Another book in this series addresses our sliding scale of value, based on the lightness/darkness of skin. On the inside the cover of the book, four girls of varying skin shades are playing. The darkest one has been isolated from the fun. Color crayons in all skins shades, poke out of the recess in the middle. I remember color crayons. When I was a kid, only the anglo-pink crayon was labeled flesh.

The witnesses and sometimes the victims are reflected on Billinglea’s hand crafted neckties.

How many of us remember the casual term “necktie party”? Another series of works in the show gives us more glimpses of the witnesses to lynching — transposed photographically onto handmade muslin neckties. Imagine a secret camera lens in the tie tack of the victim. The closely cropped images are printed in light earthy colors like a stain on a shroud. On some of the ties the viewer must work to figure out that parts of the victim can be seen hanging in the foreground. The notion of such scenes on a necktie is no more bizarre than postcard pictures of the lynchings, suggesting such an event to be an entertaining moment of history. Billingslea credits such postcards, collected by James Allen in his volume Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, for these disturbing images.

We live in a hopeful and frightening time. While we rejoice in the election of our first African American, Barach Obama, as the 44th President of the United States, our impression that times have changed is an illusion. We must look to history to provide reminders that social power along with every other kind of power corrupts. These injustices occurred in the United States in the 1800s and 1900s, and similar genocidal waves continue in our contemporary global village. The struggle for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect is far from over.

Billingslea zealously attends to her work of breaking down the code of silence that tries to let us forget our worst potential and crimes as human beings. She is both an educator and a remarkable artist. Her tender and painstaking attention to small details sets an example and moves us to slow down, look closely and absorb the power of her statement.

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