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What does a protest look like, or for that matter, a protester? After the past few years, we may think we know, but taking to the streets is only one sort of protest. In Waiting for Tear Gas, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) offers artists’ interpretations of uprisings spanning more than a century, and considers how the interpreters see themselves, whether as observers, participants, or both.
The artist as protestor
The eponymous centerpiece of the exhibit, Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black] (1999-2000), is Allan Sekula’s 13-minute slide presentation of photographs he made at the 1999 World Trade Organization Conference, which became known as the Battle of Seattle for the maelstrom of economic and environmental protests it attracted.
Sekula (1951-2013) attended the first day, when an estimated 30,000 protesters representing a kaleidoscope of causes converged on Seattle. Sekula considered himself both activist and artist, and set specific rules for himself as he photographed the event, explained Samuel Ewing, now of the University of Mississippi, who curated the exhibit as a PMA curatorial fellow and lived in Philadelphia during the 2020 protests here.
Sekula used no technology that would distance him from the visceral experience—no telephoto lens, no flash, no gas mask. The artist also set regulations for projecting and viewing the resulting presentation of 81 color images: most importantly, that they be almost life-size, so onlookers feel they’re in the protest.
David Lebe (b. 1948) took a similar approach in 1987 at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Held at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, Lebe’s photographs depict fellow attendees supporting a range of issues, including increased funding for AIDS treatment and research.
LaToya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982) spent five months in Flint, Michigan, joining residents’ struggle to force Flint to provide clean water after a disastrous budget-driven switch to untreated water. On view is a 2017 photograph Frazier made of the phrase # NO FILTER, spelled out in towers of plastic water bottles. Frazier constructed the message with three Flint women, and they stand together between the words.
The journalist as artist
A Brownie camera for his 11th birthday started Philadelphian Jack T. Franklin (1922-2009) on a lifetime of photographing Black American life. After serving as a military photographer in World War II, Franklin worked as an instructor at the Army Signal Corps Photographic Center, as a darkroom technician and studio photographer in Philadelphia, and as a freelance photojournalist.
His portrait subjects comprise a directory of mid-20th century Black luminaries, including Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Martin Luther King Jr., Patti LaBelle, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte. Franklin covered major national and local civil rights actions, including the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma March in 1965, the Poor People’s March in 1968, and Philadelphia’s 1965 protests at Girard College. His work appeared in Black periodicals such as the Philadelphia Tribune, Pittsburgh Courier, Ebony, and Jet, as well as Philadelphia newspapers like the Inquirer, Daily News, and Bulletin.
Though as a photojournalist his charge was objectivity, Franklin had to make on-the-spot decisions about where to point his lens and when to shoot. Five images are on loan from the African American Museum in Philadelphia, which holds Franklin’s archive of more than 500,000 negatives and vintage prints. His depictions of orderly protesters counter images of fiery destruction and brawling participants—scenes that come to mind more readily when people envision a demonstration.
In Strawberry Mansion Protests (1963), two young Black men in white shirts and dark pants hold signs and stand quietly, looking into the camera. The head of the man on the right is freshly bandaged. His sign reads, “We are victims of the Philadelphia KKK in cops clothes!! Black America wake up!” For Protestors at Girard College (1965), Franklin chose an elevated angle to show a large peaceful crowd of Black people. Signs rise like buoys from the sea of heads and shoulders, with messages such as “End poverty now,” and “Poverty is painful.”
Transcending stereotype and time
During the Iraq War, Judith Joy Ross (b. 1946) made portraits of objectors. Marie Bond, Reading, Pennsylvania (2006) reveals a calm, serious middle-aged woman, looking off to the side, toward a window. Her short hair is windblown and she’s wearing a heart necklace. She could be a waitress, a teamster, a doctor. She could live next door. Like Franklin, Ross shatters the dismissive caricature of protestors as unpatriotic, violent, or agitators, treating the protestor and her cause with respect.
Zoe Strauss’s (b. 1970) photograph of a boarded-up restaurant, Seafood Soul, Philadelphia (2000), zeroes in on a hand-printed message pasted over the restaurant name: “The Bush TX (Fla) Klan kills another. June 22, 2000.”
As a child, Juan Genovés (1930-2020) witnessed the Spanish Civil War and resulting fascist takeover. His experiences are distilled in Silencio, Silencio (1971), 10 etchings that have never been exhibited until now, though they’ve been in the PMA’s collection since 1979. The stark silhouettes of crowds protesting, helmeted figures looming, people fleeing, and figures lying on the ground are universally understood. They transcend time and place, but unfortunately, not human nature.
A harbinger of the best?
Don’t pass by Jenny Holzer’s text-laden Inflammatory Essays (1979-1982). The speech extracts, printed on colorful squares of paper, are worth reading.
“Don’t talk down to me. Don’t be polite to me. Don’t try to make me feel nice,” one begins. Another says, “Fear is the most elegant weapon. Your hands are never messy.” And a third reads, “Rejoice! Our times are intolerable. Take courage, for the worst is a harbinger of the best, only dire circumstance can precipitate the overthrow of oppressors.”
Holzer extracted the passages from famous but here unidentified political figures, and the words are more interesting for not knowing who uttered them. This holds whether or not you agree with the sentiments, or whether they make sense. Viewers can make a game of imagining who said what.
Like Holzer’s excerpts, Franklin’s photographs, and Sekula’s slides, accounts of protests may offer nuances missed in the heat of the moment. What might this strident moment look like in five years, through a lens or in a weighty tome? Will our flashpoints be mended or simply quashed? Will protestors be validated, exhausted, or still on the march, waiting for tear gas?
What, When, Where
Waiting for Tear Gas. Through July 17, 2022, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. General admission: $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $14 for students, and free for those under 18; pay-what-you-wish admission on first Sundays and every Friday night. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org.
The PMA follows City of Philadelphia guidance regarding Covid-19 precautions. Proof of vaccination is not required for entry, and mask wearing is optional. Should public safety guidance change, the museum will modify its policies if necessary.
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