In our Winter 2018 issue, LPR featured the art of Paul Rucker. Contributing editor Ann Bracken conducted an interview with Rucker, whose work was also featured in our issue launch.
On May 5, Ann and our publisher, Desirée Magney, traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond to see his exhibit. Below are their comments about the installation.
Desirée Magney: On display, in the back section of a large room on the first floor, was a line-up of Rucker’s mannequins dressed in long, colorful robes cinched at the waist. Pointed hoods stood erect from shoulders to well beyond the tops of the heads. Other than the colors, the mannequins’ clothing resembled the garb of the KKK. I had seen photos of Rucker’s figures in our Winter 2018 Little Patuxent Review journal, so I knew what to expect. But I couldn’t have anticipated the impact the actual exhibit had on me.
The figures were very tall and arranged in a crisscross pattern. So, no matter where you stood, you felt surrounded, intimidated, and overwhelmed by them as they towered over you. The eyeholes in the hoods were vacant, contributing to the eeriness the exhibit created. I imagine these were all feelings intended by Rucker—feelings felt in a much greater degree by those who have encountered actual Klan members. Thus, it was a very effective exhibit.
Rucker also had display cases of old Ku Klux Klan newspapers, postcards, flyers, brochures, and pamphlets. There were postcards of actual lynchings. There were photos of people posing with wide smiles on their faces, in front of bodies dangling from thick tree branches.
I queried Ann how Rucker obtained this memorabilia. “He bids on Ebay. He always wonders who he’s bidding against.” Rucker wonders if the opposing bidder is a believer in the doctrines of white supremacy groups or someone like him who wants to make us all aware of this horrifying history and the continued presence of these groups today.
One more thing that Rucker included in this exhibit were stacks of newspapers he titled “Storm in the Time of Shelter.” These newspapers were available for museum visitors to take.
The newspaper is a collection of photos from his exhibit; photos of items he’s collected, like slave branding irons; as well as a history of the KKK. In the paper he states, “This work, ‘Storm in the Time of Shelter,’ is based on a hymn my mother knows well from her years as a church organist. The images of ‘storm’ and ‘shelter’ have special meaning when associated with the dramatic rise in Klan membership in the early 20th century. Thinking about the image of the KKK robe, and its rapid proliferation, I wanted to make art that made others feel its power. And I wanted to share what I learned about the Ku Klux Klan’s origin, organization, and ideology, because its influence continues, sewn into the very fabric of White American culture.”
I certainly felt the power of Rucker’s art and the power of intimidation in his exhibit. It was sobering standing there amid all those images of hatred and violence. It was hard to take in the enormity of it all and for a time, as I stood there, I could find no words. As a white woman, I can still only imagine a tiny fragment of the fear wrought by hate groups such as the Klan. But knowledge is the first step and I thank Rucker for imparting his in this unique and powerful exhibit.
Ann Bracken: When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement seemed to be everywhere I turned. In my childish innocence, when I saw pictures of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses, I thought the hatred that inspired such abhorrent acts occurred only in the South—that somehow, in states that were north of the Mason-Dixon Line, things were different. But Rucker’s exhibit blows away any illusions of the progressive North that existed in the sheltered world of my childhood. Part of his collection features Klan newspapers from Indiana and Minnesota with titles like The Call of the North, The Fiery Cross, and Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But most jarring for me was to see a flier from Baltimore that was put out by the National Socialist White People’s Party entitled “Boating, Not Busing” and ending with a call to send Black people back to Africa. The address on the flier was Eastern Avenue, a street in Baltimore that I knew very well.
The combined effect of being surrounded by all of the Klan robes, the white supremacy books and newspapers, and the shocking realization that the Klan had existed in a city neighborhood where I had spent time filled me with profound feelings of despair. Rucker presents all of these items in a powerful combination that is also very matter-of-fact. The ugliness and horror of our history speak across time and geography. I was struck by the thought that we may have moved forward in time chronologically, but we seem to be at a standstill in so many other ways.
Rucker’s exhibit is part of the larger exhibit called Declaration, and all of the exhibition art has a message about the state of our society today, and none of the concerns addressed is more present in my life than the issue of mass incarceration. For several years now, I’ve volunteered in Patuxent Institution running a men’s writing group with another teacher. This work has opened my eyes to the injustices and inequities that permeate our prisons, placing the problem of mass incarceration and its societal ripple effects into a fresh and jarring context.
While I was still reeling from the power and shock of Rucker’s work, I came across a gigantic, black, tar ball in an upstairs gallery. Levester Williams, a Philadelphia artist, created the piece from unclean Virginia-prison bed sheets, tar, flies, and other media. His exhibit is described this way: “Williams combines tar and used bedsheets from incarcerated individuals into a sculptural form. The tar seals and immortalizes bodily traces of those who have been removed from society and rendered invisible.” I kept thinking of all the men that I have worked with over the years and how many of them feel forgotten and discarded by the outside world. Williams’ use of tar to seal the bedsheets and other materials brought up many thoughts of the punishment and humiliation that imprisoned people routinely face.
I still feel the weight of those sheets and the stories they held when I think back to the exhibit at VCU. It’s one thing to present numbers and facts about the prison system, but it’s much more powerful to see a physical representation of the people who’ve been removed from our consciousness as citizens.