Paintings about racist groups in America always brings about controversies and opens cans of worms over how black people suffered at their hands.
This background informs decisions by museums and art galleries across America including the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin which is currently displaying a 30-foot-wide panorama of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) by Houston-based artist Vincent Valdez.
The painting, titled City is a depiction of modern-day Klan members at a gathering, with one of them holding up an iPhone and others staring straight at the viewer. In the background is a late-model Chevy pickup.
Although the museum got the painting in 2016, it took two years to prepare itself and its audience for the unveiling of the work.
Among the things it did is setting up meetings with at least 100 individuals and organizations, such as the mayor’s office, the Anti-Defamation League and an advocacy group for people of colour called Austin Justice Coalition and (albeit late) the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (N.A.A.C.P.).
It also gathered administrators, students and faculty members at the university to inform them of the painting and to shield the university against criticism resulting from the painting.
Further, it ensured that there was a ‘host’ at the gallery at all time to answer all questions arising from the painting.
But why go to all this length for a painting?
The painter, Valdez stated that the current events in America have shown that racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan cannot be relegated to the past, reports the New York Times.
“There are people in the United States of America who refuse to acknowledge that entities like the Klan exist. And now we’re seeing the end result,” he said.
“It’s a lot easier to confront subjects like white supremacy or the Klan as evil villains. I’m more concerned about the notion that we all inhabit the same American landscape,” Valdez added.
Valdez’s works take on social justice issues in the past and present.
The museum’s director, Simone Wicha, believed that the painting is so powerful that she pushed its unveiling, originally planned for Summer 2017, by a year because she did not want it to coincide with President Donald Trump’s election.
“I just felt that with a painting like this, the subject matter it’s taking on, the world we’re in, we needed to be really thoughtful in how we prepared. Would we have done this in a different political climate? I don’t know. But I can tell you that in this political climate it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Most importantly for Valdez, the painting is a way of awakening many who dismiss the existence, continuity and ubiquity of the Klan. In a statement, he said:
This could be any city in America. These individuals could be any Americans. There is a false sense that these threats were, or are, contained at the peripheries of society and in small rural communities. . . . It is possible that they are city politicians, police chiefs, parents, neighbors, community leaders, academics, church members, business owners, etcetera. This is the most frightening aspect of it all.