Artist finds new meaning in images of lynchings

Searching for California Hang Trees series
In Ken Gonzales-Day's "Searching for California Hang Trees" series, he transforms beautiful landscape photos into ominous, haunting images.
Courtesy of the Ken Gonzales-Day and Luis De Jesus 2004

"Shadowlands," a new exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art examines the role of lynchings in U.S. history, and finds troubling connections to racially motivated violence today.

Overwhelmingly more black Americans have been lynched in U.S. history than any other group. From 4,000 to 10,000 African-Americans were lynched in the United States between 1888 and 1958, depending on which source you use. But blacks were not the only ethnic group systematically beaten down by mob violence.

Back in the year 2000, there was hot debate about immigrants crossing the Mexican border without legal documents. Mexicans who made it across were being shot and killed by vigilante patrols.

Photographer and Scripps College professor Ken Gonzales-Day decided to take a look at history to see if it would shed any light on the situation.

"Initially, I was just trying to understand it as a Mexican-American myself," he said. "I was trying to understand the context in which people could turn against a whole part of the community."

Sikeston, MO (Cleo Wright)
Sikeston, MO (Cleo Wright), from Erased Lynching Series II, 2013. Ken Gonzales-Day carefully reproduced postcards of American lynchings in the west, erasing the body of the victim. The result allows viewers to linger over the photo, and focuses their attention on the crowd assembled, their facial expressions, and the cruel theater of the event.
Courtesy of the Ken Gonzales-Day and Luis De Jesus 2013

Gonzales-Day began by working with the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute records, which report between 25 and 50 cases of Latinos being lynched in California. As he continued his research he found more lynchings of Latinos — and others.

"And at some point I realized that my list had grown larger than any list that was in any of the books I was looking for," he said.

In the end, Gonzales-Day recorded more than 350 cases in the state of California. Two-thirds of the lynchings were of people of color. Some were black, but not many. The vast majority of lynchings of black people happened after the abolition of slavery in 1865. Gonzales-Day's research starts in 1850.

"By moving the clock back to a time before the end of slavery, we begin to see that in the United States that other racialized communities were affected differently," he said. "So in a way, this is the story before the story that we already know. And in this broader story we can see now that Native Americans, Chinese, Latinos — that many different communities were targeted."

Gonzales-Day's exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art contains work from several different projects, all surrounding race and racial violence. One is the "Erased Lynchings" series — 15 images created from historic postcards of lynchings throughout the American Southwest.

Gonzales-Day erased the bodies and the ropes in the original images. That way, he says, viewers are less likely to turn away in horror, and more likely to notice the social dynamics at work.

"So you see the members of the community standing around what would have been the body, or you see the tree or you see something of the landscape, and so it allows you to think more critically about the conditions that made these events possible in the first place," he said.

Other, larger photos feature lovely landscapes and majestic oak trees. But those photos turn from lovely to ominous when the viewer realizes they are part of Gonzales-Day's series, "Searching for California Hang Trees."

In other works, Gonzales-Day juxtaposes photographs he took of current racial protests with images of lynching scenes.

"I was trying to really show a continuity in the U.S., spanning 150 years, in which race continues to be a challenge for us as a nation," he said.

Christopher Atkins, curator of exhibitions and public programs at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, said he started planning this show back in 2014, before the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.

"As things began to develop with his show I realized there's a prescience to his work — that unfortunately makes us connect to things that are happening right outside our doorstep," he said.

"Shadowlands" runs through April 16 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in downtown St. Paul.