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Exhibits ponder faith, gender in Black Lives Matter era

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'Diane & Sons'
"Diane & Sons" by David Obermeyer is included in one of two art exhibitions with connections to the Black Lives Matter movement. The shows are a collaboration between Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis and United Theological Seminary in New Brighton.
Courtesy United Theological Seminary and Intermedia Arts

Two art exhibitions with connections to the Black Lives Matter movement opened Thursday night. One examines the role of faith communities in fighting for racial justice, while the other looks at police killings of black women. 

It's not a coincidence that these two shows opened at the same time. They are the result of a collaboration between Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis and United Theological Seminary in New Brighton. They are curated by Roderic Southall and Sheryl Schwyhart. 

The seminary show is titled "Faith [In]Action?" — with a question mark. Schwyhart said it's a play on words.

"Is what we do in our daily faith faith in action, or is it faith inaction?" she asked. "Are we really doing, or are we just talking?"

Schwyhart said that while some faith communities have been visible supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, showing up at rallies and participating in protests, other communities have been silent. The show is meant to ask some uncomfortable questions, she said.   

"I think biblically we are charged with being our brother's keeper, and whatever we do to the least of these, you do unto me, and when we see injustice I think we are given the responsibility to right that," she said. 

Artists from around the country submitted work for the show. A brightly colored mosaic depicts a young black woman as a religious icon, with an American flag covering her mouth. Another work shows a white couple enjoying a picnic, oblivious to the black body hanging from a nearby tree. 

The show at Intermedia Arts is called "Hands Up Don't Shoot — HER." Roderic Southall said the show is inspired by what he calls an "absence of outrage" over the loss of black women's lives at the hands of police. 

"The exhibit is an homage to the fact that there are a pile of black women's bodies that no one's talking about enough to cause the kind of outrage that's necessary," he said. 

Southall said there's a commonly accepted narrative of a war between black men and the police. But for some reason black women don't fit this narrative, and when they die, they are viewed as the exception to the rule. Southall said this isn't the first time violence against black women has been overlooked.

"When people think of lynchings, they think of black men," he said. "There were so many black women who were lynched — absent from our popular imagination, if you will. And I think I have a fear that when history writes the story of Black Lives Matter, the same thing will happen. There will be this thought that only black men were the ones who suffered police violence."

A recent report by the African American Policy Forum found that black women are killed and violated by police with alarming regularity, but that their stories remain conspicuously absent in the media and popular awareness. 

In the Intermedia Arts gallery, one wall is covered with the names of black women killed by police, including a phonetic spelling. Inspired by the #SayHerName meme on social media, Roderic Southall says people are invited to stand and recite their names.  

"By saying their name you're sort of paying homage, right?" he asked. "You're remembering them. And when you say their names you begin to recognize them and see, in this case, the bodies of black women being attacked from so many different sides."

Southall said he hopes that by invoking their names, people who attend the exhibit will no longer be able to forget that black women are also victims of police brutality.