Art for social betterment often falls flat, tripping over its own earnestness. But “Question Bridge: Black Males” – a video installation at Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture that uses conversation to undermine stereotypes – is both a compelling communication tool and a riveting art experience.
The work of collaborators Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, Hank Willis Thomas and Kamal Sinclair, it has been presented at major venues such as the Sundance Film Festival and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Here’s the concept: If you put people in a room and ask them to talk to one another, they may be guarded, suspicious. But what if you recorded someone asking a question and took that question to someone else for a response?
Each participant in “Question Bridge: Black Males” received a simple prompt, said Smith: “We know you have a question for another black male that you feel different or estranged from. Look into the camera as if you’re talking to them and ask your question.”
Through deft editing of questions and answers, viewers witness a conversation that transpires on five small screens in a darkened gallery.
It sounds simple, but the results are stunning. Participants, freed from the pressure of expectations, opened up with poignant answers, defying stereotypes maintained by others – and themselves.
A diverse group of participants – among them doctors, lawyers, academics, inner city and suburban youth, gay and straight men, and the incarcerated – addressed topics including interracial relationships, media depictions of black men and whether a black president has changed anything.
Some questions are startling: “If all white people were gone, who would you be?”
There are questions that sound flippant, but address serious issues about cultural expectations: “Am I the only one who’s eating chicken, watermelon and bananas in front of white people?” “Do you surf?”
The question “What are you afraid of?” yields telling answers. One man gives a pensive answer about identity, dignity and legacy. Another looks straight into the camera and says, “Getting shot.”
The “Question Bridge” concept originated with a 1996 video commission that Johnson, a photography professor at the California College of Arts, did for San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts.
For this version, which involved black men and women, Johnson recorded middle-class professionals directing questions to inner-city residents (“Have you given any thought to where welfare money comes from?”), who in turn had questions of their own (“Why do you talk like a white person?”).
After that, Thomas, then an MFA candidate at CCA, approached Johnson about doing a version with black men only; he then asked fellow grad student Smith to collaborate. (Smith has several Charlotte connections; he was an Observer photographer in 2000 and a 2008 McColl Center for Visual Art artist-in-residence.)
This version focuses exclusively on black men, Smith said, in part because they “are one of the most feared and misunderstood demographics in America.”
Johnson sees “Question Bridge” as an open-source concept. “If teens were to see this idea as something they could apply to their own need for dialogue, I would be really gratified.”
Johnson thinks about a young man in New Orleans “who looked into the camera and said, ‘I try to be a good person, but I’m surrounded by bad. I want to know how I can live a peaceful life, when I’m surrounded by evil. How do I do that?’
“That question went right to my heart.”
This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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