The Kevin Cole exhibit, Where Do We Go From Here?, which closes at MOCA GA on October 15, packs a huge amount of painful history into a show that asks a painful question. It invites the viewer to spend large amounts of time looking for historical information, but its point is much more immediate, and urgent.

Voting has historically been made difficult for African Americans by various means of discouragement or exclusion. In addition to obstacles to voting (amounting to impossibilities), the gerrymandering of legislative districts has in most cases diminished the voting power of African Americans in particular, even when its overall effect is to disadvantage whichever political party didn’t draw the district lines.

A case currently pending before the Supreme Court involves the legitimacy of the dilution of the representation of the African American population through gerrymandering of Congressional districts, so the issue is more than historical.

Cole sculpture “Black to the Future”

As part of the 2021-22 Working Artists Project, Cole has made a variety of new works of art that respond to these past and present realities. They ask, pointedly, “Where do we go from here?” with the answer: “It depends on voters, and their access to the ballot.”

The first piece Cole conceived for the show was All Tied Up in Politics, the Cover Up, a seemingly abstract wall piece in which tangles of metal literally cover up a map showing the four Georgia counties that, as Cole tells us in an interview with Greg Head, he and some of his friends decided were the most heavily gerrymandered.

The most directly didactic artwork is Black to the Future, a sculpture the shape and size of a mailbox, bearing the label “Ballot Box.” It includes a stack of leaflets inviting viewers’ responses to some of the unanswerable questions that African American voters were asked in past decades as part of the “literacy test” required in order to vote: “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” is one of them. (A smaller, companion ballot-box sculpture is titled How Many Blackeye Peas in a Bag.)

The rest of the exhibition is equally powerful and delivers an equally direct message by indirect means. The series Dirty South presents metal cutouts in the shape of, and titled after, the states of Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas. Each sculpture is overlaid with irregularly shaped patches of dirt taken from each state, mixed with metal shavings from the making of the sculpture. The dirt apparently represents the districts that have been most spectacularly gerrymandered in each state.

The impression is strengthened by the opposite visual strategy of the All Eyez on Us series in which metal tondos present the outlines of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin as an empty space in the center, punctuated by dark patches representing the most egregiously gerrymandered districts. In Wisconsin, for example, the gerrymandering is based on party affiliation of all registered voters, but it also dilutes African American voting power. It is left to the viewers to do the online or print media search to find this background information.

This reliance on the viewers to do their own research and analysis is even more dominant in the Creating Obstacles series of metal banners, where the depiction of state outlines and gerrymandered districts are accompanied by mottoes and by words referring to moments in the state’s racial history.

“Dirty South” is featured on the left wall; “Creating Obstacles” on the right.

The Florida banner carries the name of a court case, “Shaw v. Reno,” the word “filibuster,” and the place name “Rosewood.” The words are a vivid shorthand for Florida’s racist history.

The court case involved the effect of diluting African American voting power through the structure of district lines and the use of the filibuster in Congress to delay the passage of legislation. Rosewood was a small, primarily African American, economically self-sufficient town that was wiped out in a racially motivated massacre in 1923.

It is left up to the viewer to decide whether to look up this information independently, or to leave the words unexplained. Complete comprehension of this show would require as much work as Cole put into the researching and making of it.

In other words, Cole puts the primary responsibility of understanding the show on the individual viewer, just as it is left to the individual voter to understand what is at stake in the all-important question posed by the show’s title.

In both cases, ignorance has consequences.


Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism. 

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