When you see the artwork to the right, titled “Flint,” what are your first thoughts? Maybe something like, It’s powerful, touching, and says a lot about the issues in Flint without using any words at all.
Now, what if we told you the piece was created by a 57-year-old white woman? Would it discredit the work in any way? Would it take away from the impact of the piece? Would your thoughts change? Should they?
The artist, Ti-Rock Moore, who has been creating pieces that tackle race for several years now, is accustomed to the shift in viewers' perspectives. Last year, Moore received heat after exhibiting a life-size mannequin of Michael Brown’s dead body surrounded by police tape. Race can be a touchy topic for any artist to explore, and it becomes extra dicey when someone from an inherently privileged perspective starts to weigh in.
But it’s clear Moore is very much aware of her own privilege. “I am resolved as an artist-activist to challenge the systems built on the foundation of white privilege, white power, and white supremacy,” Moore tells us, stating that her intended audience is primarily white Americans. “By exhibiting symbolically overt events, which are manifestations of these systems, and pointing out the brutalities that these systems support, I hope to provide a reflection of the perpetrators to the perpetrators.”
It’s also clear her work resonates with audiences of varying backgrounds. A video of her “Flint” piece, which debuted at Art Basel, has received more than 24,000 retweets on Twitter and a video posted on Facebook just hit one million views. Of course, that Facebook video also features a range of conflicted opinions in the comments, but that’s the intent of good art—to create a dialogue and discussion, and also to make you think and, perhaps, feel a little uncomfortable in the process.
Ahead, we chat with Moore about how her “Flint” piece came into being, her role as an artist and activist, and how to be a good white ally. Scroll through to read what she had to say and to check out some of her other pieces along the way.
Talk me through your process for the “Flint” piece. When did you come up with the concept and how did you decide this was the most powerful way to get your message across?
"Flint" took me approximately one year and a half to conceptualize. An important part of my process is my four to six hours of studying per day. I've had to study daily since Hurricane Katrina, which is when I realized I hadn't fully grasped the extent to which racism really dominated the vitality of people of color. It wasn't until I witnessed that racial crime that I was shocked into reality and realized I had been blinded by my own entitlement for my whole life, despite my declaration that I was liberal. The violence and neglect that the black community experienced post-Katrina was horrific; this is what made me such a passionate activist. Things I had been blind to in my own world came up and slapped me in the face. So, for 11 and a half years, I have studied the last 400 years of American history, current events, politics, white privilege, white power, and white supremacy.
Much of my inspiration comes from my studies. I make lengthy lists of ideas while studying and refine those lists constantly. I knew I had to speak out about Flint, Michigan, and the mismanagement of the water crisis. Daily, I contemplated and studied Flint, knowing I would use water as a significant force in the piece. [After] a year and a half of thinking, one morning I woke up, and I had it! A water fountain painted snow white, signifying white privilege, white power, and white supremacy with a "colored" sign hanging above it and rusty water flowing continuously from it, signaling the ongoing situation in the majority black town, as well as the extreme limitations placed on communities of color due to flawed infrastructures that privilege the needs of affluent and often predominantly white communities. I make all of my artwork for myself first and have no thoughts about where or when it's going. I only fabricate pieces I've conceptualized that I would like to keep. And then, after the work is fabricated completely, it sits in my studio with me for weeks being scrutinized in every way, before it is professionally photographed and sent to Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, the gallery that represents me in New Orleans. When I had "Flint" photographed, I knew it was the most powerful way for me to get my message about Flint across, because it just plain spells it out, doesn't it?
Why did you feel Art Basel, and this year, was the right time to present it to the world?
It was the necessary time to present it to the world because the situation in Flint has been going on for nearly two years now. I think it’s incredibly timely and critical to frame this within a narrative of racial inequality. Of course, the white residents are affected by this, but the fact of the matter is that Flint is a majority black city with nearly half of its residents—42 percent—living in poverty. Those two factors undeniably play key roles in why providing citizens of a community with essential needs that they pay for is being completely ignored. This travesty would absolutely never happen in a majority white, upper-middle class, or middle-class town or city. This is a textbook contemporary example of white supremacy informing policy, resource allocation, and overall priorities in this country. To deny that this is an issue of racism leads us right back to the root of the problem.
A lot of your work deals with race at the root—Hurricane Katrina, racial profiling, the prison industrial complex—why did you choose to make an issue that some may argue doesn’t directly affect you the focus of so many of your pieces?
I think it’s false and unproductive to assume that just because I’m white, racism isn’t my issue to tackle. In fact, because of how we are positioned in society—the mobility, voice, and general privileges that come with being white—it is just as much our burden to carry, if not more so, in order to prompt change. There’s such a strong legacy of anti-racist white folks in the United State too, the abolitionist movement, for instance. People of color deal with enough oppression and have to work harder in many respects; it shouldn’t fall completely on them to lead change and push forward anti-racist messaging. We all need to be in this fight to change the dire situation. Being from the South, born and raised in New Orleans, has always made me hyper-aware of the differential and unjust treatment of my neighbors of color. From housing access to the quality of food, people of color are predisposed to a much lower quality of life for no reason other than their skin color. It was eating away at me not to address these issues as openly and radically as I possibly could. My piece “Flint” is about the legacy of the Jim Crow laws and how that framework still heavily impacts how American society operates and the decisions that are being made on a policy level. A lot of my work is about outing contemporary practices of racism that are really just contemporary iterations of slavery.
Some have accused your work as exploiting the killings and struggles of African-Americans. What’s your reaction?
Frankly, I think a lot of the criticism I’ve received for my previous work helped me address a lot of my own white fragility. In making work that’s so emotionally and politically charged, I was challenged to grow and truly investigate my own privilege and contextualize what I’ve been making with my own personhood and my own identity. I’m evolving, as is my work, very openly in public, but I continue to stand behind my intent and message.
Do you think only certain groups of people are allowed to participate in artistic dialogue surrounding race relations?
I think your own race must be pivotal to the conversation that evolves around your work. And in my work, my race is pivotal to that conversation. Look, human cruelty in this country is rooted in the entitlement of white men in power. There is a very complex set of systems, regulations, and institutions fixed to keep the white man in control. My focus is only to confront this reality. I am resolved to speak of what many white Americans choose to ignore, and my hope is to create art that brings into collective awareness such unpleasant truths. I'm in a delicate position to push forward these truths, but I chose not to remain stunted by the debilitating fear or discretion or silence that many white Americans lean on in avoidance of these truths.
Are there topics involving race that you won’t touch?
As a white person, I'm not in a position to target black audiences in my message because I will never know what it's like to experience the world as anything other than who I am. It would be unjust to project any of my ideas about racism to an audience that is outside my lived experience, particularly when the subject matter is racism. But we are at a very crucial time in terms of civil rights and activism in America, and advocacy on white American's behalf is absolutely necessary for getting anywhere. After all, we are the perpetrators.
Your "Flint" piece has gained a lot of attention on Twitter which is where I came across it. I know you view yourself as an activist. Do you think social media can work in the same way as art; do you think it has the power to invoke change?
It's a beautiful thing... and the discussion is all centered around people interpreting a piece of art. Contemporary activism is enabled so much more by technology. Social media is both a tool for organizing work on the ground and a sounding board for visual art, in my case.
You were an activist for gay rights in the '80s and '90s; how do you think the art of activism has changed from then to now?
Social media and technology have been the game changers and enabled mass communication, organization, and disruption; disruption of the status quo has been taken to a whole new level. Now, we must up the ante even on that!
Much of your work addresses white privilege; what would you say are some good practices for a successful white ally?
A lot of my pieces deal with white privilege, white power, and white supremacy. I would suggest some good practices are to constantly educate yourself by studying the past, understand how racism has crippled our country for four centuries. Take accountability for our role in racism and take accountability for our role in the fight against racism. I think the demands of being an effective white ally right now are much deeper than ever. It’s not simply owning up to your privilege or understanding mechanisms of racism, even though that’s a start. White allyship is bolstering your peers of color to positions of leadership in your workplace, at school, on the train to work, and everywhere for that matter. Challenge the systems built on the foundation of white supremacy, white power, and white privilege. What I understand as part of my responsibility as a white ally, activist, and artist is not simply to acknowledge racism outright, but to target those fellow white Americans who turn a blind eye to systemic oppression.
"Protect and Serve"
that in times of dread, art becomes more important than ever. It’s a declaration that became especially poignant when Donald Trump was elected. How do you hope to channel your art in the coming years?
My art practice began with messaging that was meant to target white folks who subscribed to microaggressions that were perpetuating these more nuanced forms of racism. Beyond the overt racist, the gun-wielding Bible thumper, I have always been keenly aware of how vast this group of people is because many of my neo-liberal white friends were those people too. The election this year really brought this to the surface, and also revealed the grave and damaging effects of this sort of compliant racism that contributes to the status quo. Trump’s election reifies the importance and relevance of my original mission, but ultimately, the audience of the work really decides itself and takes on its own life.
You have a solo show coming up in 2017 in New Orleans; are there any specific issues you’re hoping to tackle that you can share?
White privilege, white power, white supremacy, white denial, gentrification, the blue wall of silence, racism fatigue/privilege fatigue, terror tools of the white man during slavery. "Flint" will also be exhibited in this show.