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An art exhibit on race in America generates an unexpected controversy

Protesters wonder, does a white artist have the right to comment on the black experience?

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"Confronting Truths: Wake Up!," Ti-Rock Moore's new solo exhibit at Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville, was intended to start a conversation about racism in America. Instead it's started a controversy.

Moore, who's white, created 50 pieces for the exhibit, including Michael Brown Black Angel, a life-size replica of Michael Brown's body lying facedown in the street after he was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. Almost as soon as the exhibit opened, social media was awash with criticism. Johnetta "Netta" Elzie, an activist from Saint Louis, live-streamed her visit via Periscope on Twitter. "You're 'all lives matter' and trying to profit off the moment for black lives?" Elzie tweeted at one point. "Is that how 'marketing' works?"

A stream of tweets from others followed calling the artist and (African-American) gallery owners opportunists; some charged Moore with perpetrating another form of cultural violence against African-Americans as a white woman profiting from American racism.

Moore hasn't responded publicly to the criticism, but the day before the exhibit opened, an interview with her appeared on the New Orleans artists' website Pelican Bomb. "I am an activist first and an artist second," Moore said. "My art manifests from my acute awareness of my own white privilege and the fact that this privilege is directly traced to slavery; the reality that white privilege is the cornerstone of American democracy. Many white Americans are in denial when it comes to their own privilege. Isn't this the great moral issue of our time?"

Andre Guichard, one of the principals of Gallery Guichard, says the gallery, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, focuses on the art of the African diaspora, and that race has always been part of the conversation. While he and his business partner Stephen Mitchell did expect some controversy surrounding the exhibit because of its subject matter, they were taken aback by viewers taking issue with Moore's being Caucasian.

"I think that the fact that so many people on social media who are having a problem putting their arms around the fact that a Caucasian artist can be activist through her art is so unbelievable," says Guichard. "[It] speaks to the fact that we need to continue to have these conversations, because there are a lot of people out there in the world who believe people are people and the human condition is very important and what better way to do it other than art?" Guichard adds that 10 percent of the proceeds from the sale of each piece will be donated to a charity that relates to the piece.

Guichard was initially drawn to Moore's work by Possession, a piece he saw in an exhibit last year at Ogden Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center in Moore's hometown, New Orleans. The piece features the silhouettes of black men behind prison bars made of real dollar bills.

"Possession speaks to the industrialization of the African-American male in our criminal justice system," he says, "and it's a very powerful piece. It's courageous, it's dramatic, and it's true, which is like most of the work in the exhibit."

Some of the controversy surrounding Michael Brown Black Angel stemmed from a miscommunication that left Brown's father, Michael Brown Sr., uninformed of the exhibit. Guichard and Mitchell say they didn't realize that the invitation they mailed to the family had reached only Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, prior to the exhibit's opening. They've since apologized to Brown Sr.

McSpadden herself attended a private showing of the exhibit the evening before the July 10 reception, where according to the Guardian, Black Angel was covered up, at her request, for the duration of her visit.

Among the other guests at the preopening was the Reverend Michael Pfleger, the outspoken pastor of Saint Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham. Pfleger not only saw but was overwhelmed by Michael Brown Black Angel. "I also lost a son who was shot and killed," he says, "and remember him laying on the ground, so that was difficult for me to swallow."

The pieces are "very edgy and very powerful," Pfleger says. "Having been there on Thursday evening, I can tell you for a fact that the conversations coming out of the people seeing the different things were very, very powerful and very rich. That's what art is supposed to do. I think the purpose of lectures and the purpose of art is to raise conversation and dialogue and [the] various viewpoints of it."  v

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