An art show about voting rights and voter suppression is up at 21c in Louisville, displayed during the centennial year of Women’s suffrage and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
“BallotBox,” curated by Skylar Smith of Louisville, features the work of five artists and is meant to be a jumping off point for discussions around topics like democracy, citizenship and voting rights.
“The confluence of these anniversaries with the 2020 U.S. Presidential election makes this a significant moment for reflection on what a vote is worth, the monumental efforts in past decades to secure voting rights, and contemporary voter access and engagement,” Smith wrote about the show.
Louisville-based Taylor Sanders has two works in the show, including a sculpture that looks like a giant jar of giant bubble gum balls with the words “Literacy Test” on its base.
Sanders titled the work “Guessing Game.”
Sanders said the work “focuses on literacy tests that were given to African Americans during the Jim Crow era when they tried to register to vote.”
It’s a commentary comparing voting literacy tests to games played at birthday parties or baby showers, where you try to nail down how many candies are in the jar to win a prize.
But in “Guessing Game,” the prize is the right to vote — and it feels “impossible,” Sanders wrote in her artist statement.
“‘Guessing Game’ calls attention to the ridiculousness of literacy tests.”
During a special virtual tour of the exhibition the first weekend in October, Brianna Harlan, an artist born and raised in Louisville, spoke about her grandmother, local civil rights leader Mattie Jones. Jones had a frustrating experience with a supposed literacy test decades ago while trying to vote in Mississippi.
Harlan laid out her grandmother’s story in three velvet banners, the first of which has text on it.
“She was pretty certain that she passed her literacy test. She said she was very confident,” Harlan said of her “Nana.”
But an officer at the polling site told her she had to sing the “Star Bangled Banner.”
“So she sang it,” Harlan said. “And he said, ‘Well, you sang off key, so you don’t get to vote, go on home.’”
The second banner shows Mattie Jones’s face, with the words: “You sang off key.”
Harlan has heard her Nana describe the incident as demoralizing.
“As a Black woman, especially in the South, to be told to sing, and if you perform well enough… maybe we’ll let you participate, maybe we’ll let you have rights.”
Harlan feels that sends a clear message that the systems don’t exist to serve everyone, ultimately dissuading people from participating at all. Which is why Harlan felt so strongly about blending history and “personal narrative” in her works for the “BallotBox” exhibition.
“We hear a lot, like, don’t make the political personal even though it is,” she said. “The political is personal because it affects our everyday lives and the decisions that we’re able to make.”
The three panels are hung next to a sculpture of a metal ballot box, suspended by metal chains. Harlan described the chains as “literally and figuratively strangling” the ballot box, “holding it in place almost as an omen, that you’re not allowed to participate… But nevertheless, we have to, we have to do what we can.”
Brooklyn map artist Jennifer Maravillas has a watercolor piece in the show called “Party Line,” a large painted map of the United States that “explores the idea of gerrymandering.”
It does this with three different sets of information, she explained during the Oct. 3 virtual event. One of those sets is the 2018 congressional election results, painted in different tones of red and blue by county.
“Together they show cracking and packing, which are the main methods of gerrymandering,” she said.
The term cracking speaks to drawing district lines to dilute like-minded voters, and packing is crowding them into a district. Politicians might use one of these methods to tip the scales in their favor.
On top of that, yellow tones show redistricting, overlaid with line drawings of two different congressional district maps.
“It’s truly shaping our nation,” Maravillas said of gerrymandering. “And it’s a system that has been around since the beginning of the country. And we’ve all kind of worked a little bit to change the system, but it’s generally agreed upon is something that is not working for us.”
The artist said she only knew “basis information” about gerrymandering before working on this piece, and did extensive research to create “Party Line.”
The exhibition also includes three paintings from Louisville visual artist Sandra Charles, a look at voting issues across three generations.
The three pieces look at things like the outside pressures put on people to vote for the right or the left, how there are still systems in place today that impede people’s ability to vote and “the new attitude of this new generation.”
“They have new ideas… talking about things that our generation wouldn’t even think about,” Charles said during the virtual tour. “[It] is my hope that this new generation will bring us into a new future, and a new way of running this country.”
James Robert Southard of Lexington has a series of video installations in the show, which ran previously on the CityPost kiosks in downtown Louisville.
“Those videos were running downtown with no labeling, no messaging, no nothing,” he said.
But when the protests began downtown, people thought someone had hacked the system — “that they were part of a conspiracy.”
It’s easy to understand why, as the videos are a mashup of archival political ads in which Southard blurs out or obscures the faces of politicians, or swaps out just a few words.
“I used this exhibition as an opportunity to kind of go back through history and see how campaigns have been run and also what they’re selling us,” he said. “What I started to notice is that they’re all pretty repetitive… once you remove the individual… whether it’s an ad from like 1964, or 2004.”
He hopes the installations encourage people to “be a little more critical of what we’re being shown.”
Alice Gray Stites, 21c museum director and chief curator, said the exhibition was supposed to be displayed at Metro Hall. But the pandemic nixed the venue as a possibility, and Stites was happy to give it a home, especially since it “drives civic engagement around the arts.”
She hopes it encourages people to get out and vote.
“Also, we like having it here because it connects to our other exhibitions that we have on view at 21c,” Stites said.
That includes a group show called “Truth or Dare: A Reality Show,” that questions what is real and what is an illusion, and a solo exhibition of South African artist Wim Botha, “which also raises issues around racial reckoning, and truth and power,” Stites said.
Stites said they’re planning more virtual events for “BallotBox,” but it can also be viewed in person, social distancing, at 21c through Jan. 31, 2021.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.