When I meet the Philadelphia-based photographer Tieshka Smith, she is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with an upside-down American flag. It’s a universal symbol of distress that she’s using to indicate being under attack. “Hanging the flag upside-down,” she explains, “symbolizes the feeling that I felt as a black woman witnessing all these incidences of police brutality.” Smith hopes people will recognize this sign and rally around the cause.
This symbol is one of several employed in Smith’s upcoming installation, Racism Is a Sickness, an interactive art project set to open at the Art Church of West Philadelphia on February 1. Smith uses the project to explore the plague of racism and its symptoms — how it affects people psychologically, physically, socioeconomically, and within relationships — in an effort to spark conversations about race. Beyond the trauma of racism, the project also raises questions about healing and recovery, and compels participants to take social action and to create work, such as a poem or painting, in response.
When people understand the idea that racism is a sickness, Smith said, “The next thing I want them to think is ‘how can I get better?'”
Portraits, interviews, and surgical masks
In Racism Is a Sickness, Smith documents the deleterious effects of racism on individuals through composite images of 14 people with whom she conducted extensive, filmed interviews. Those people, including teachers, artists, and activists ranging from their 20s to their 70s, represent a diverse cross section of Philadelphia, spanning genders and races. She asked them questions about their first and most painful experiences with racism, invited them to bring in an object that represents a part of their relationship to racism, and asked them to write on a surgical mask a word indicating which racism-induced symptom they struggle to keep out of their systems.
Another part of the installation is a series of word clouds composed of responses written on Post-it notes that Smith solicited from three different community prompts. There will also be a surprise mixed-media component as well as a piece that uses pill bottles (Smith asks for your donations of pill bottles with the labels removed) filled with anecdotes: messages that counteract the negative feelings tied to racism.
“A public health problem"
“I believe that racism is a public health problem, and we have the tools and the infrastructure in our municipalities across the country, at state level, and at the federal level to address this from a public health standpoint," Smith said. “You have people being murdered and being harassed and who are being traumatized as a result.” Smith maintains that if Ebola and bird flu can be addressed using public resources, racism can, too.
Racism Is a Sickness not only tackles its topics in a gallery, but throughout the month, there will also be a series of programs in line with the themes of the installation, including film screenings, a panel discussion on education, a drum circle, a dance performance, and a three-part workshop on white identity. The Racism Is a Sickness web presence (on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr) also serves as a dynamic and interactive part of the project. Online, Smith chronicles her artistic process (which began in early 2015), spotlights current events and other initiatives relating to Racism Is a Sickness, and invites people to engage with the project.
Smith plans to show the installation — or parts of it — in various other places around the city to act as a catalyst for hyper-local conversations about race. “Race expresses itself differently in different parts of Philadelphia,” Smith said, pointing out that people from a specific community would activate the space of Racism Is a Sickness in a specific way.
The opening reception for Racism Is a Sickness, running February 1-29, will take place at Art Church (5219 Webster Street, Philadelphia) on Friday, February 5 from 7-10pm and will include refreshments and a performance by Philly-based musician DMNQ LNDN.
At right: Tieshka Smith's "Silence/Not Silent." Image courtesy of the artist.