The arrival of “Making Great Lives Matter” to the Museum of Contemporary Art is timed most eerily for the community it seeks to serve. In a year largely defined by the extrajudicial killings of Black people by American law-enforcement, and the subsequent waves of riots, protests and general disquiet in cities across this country, this new multi-media installation debuts smack dab in the midst of a month when multiple Black people have died in a series of police-involved shootings right here in Jacksonville.
This is not an occasion for debating the details of the young man’s death. The point, rather, is to note the broader context in which the tragedy occurs, the same context that made this particular art project so compelling, and its place of display such an obvious choice.
Artist Carl Joe Williams developed the latest entry in MOCA’s longstanding Project Atrium series over the course of the past year, which just happened to be one of the most tense and tumultuous years in American history. As stated above, the timing of this new installation is kinda eerie. But, then again, it’s not really that eerie at all, since these types of tragedies have become so disturbingly common.
For Williams, the beating of Rodney King nearly three decades ago was an awakening. “We thought that video would appeal to people on a higher level, but it never did,” Williams says. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that social media and the advent of smartphones allowed such footage to achieve critical mass, culminating with the public displays that have helped define this year. Williams watched this all go on while preparing his current work, ever mindful of the Breaking News. “More and more people kept getting killed,” he says. “I figured there were going to be more while the piece was up.” Unfortunately, he was right.
Like all Project Atrium installations, Williams’s “Making Great Lives Matter” is jaw-dropping in its scale. Combining large mixed-media murals in vivid colors paired with antique TVs and video monitors depicting just some of the tragic events that inspired this work, including the final moments of martyrs like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling and Walter Wallace, as well as the Rodney King beating from 1991, in addition to newly-recorded video of local luminaries commenting on these events and their aftermath, Williams covered every inch of MOCA’s Project Atrium’s 40-foot gallery walls.
In the Education gallery, you can also find videos depicting Douglas Anderson students ruminating on race, politics and the American Dream. “I created a work that was meant to operate on multiple levels, Williams says of the install. “There is a lot of depth in the visuals of the work itself. The piece itself was meant to ask questions that spark a deeper conversation about the state of affairs, and how our history is affecting us now.”
Born in July 1970, Williams was drawn to art from his earliest childhood, but he didn’t really seize upon its potential as a vocation until he met John Scott (1940-2007), an MFA grad from Michigan State who cultivated a long and diverse career in painting, sculpting, collage and printmaking. Scott was then chairing the art department at Xavier University in New Orleans, where both were born. “He allowed me to come to Xavier a couple days a week, when I was still in high school,” says Williams, “and it made a huge impact on me. I got to see how an artist really works.” Other early influences include Willie Birch, Lin Emory and Curtis Patterson, among others. “I have mentors that I’ve never even met,” he says with a laugh.
Williams moved to Atlanta in 1988, later graduating from the Atlanta College of Art. He then returned home and began cultivating a career as one of the most dynamic young artists in the southeast, exhibiting as far up as Hartford and New York City. He’s honed that reputation over the subsequent decades, and this project marks his first appearance in the River City. He did his homework, flying in and touring the community under supervision of Shawana Brooks and Roosevelt Watson III, surveying the public art scene, lunching at Orsay and even speaking to prisoners at the jail.
Williams’s “Making Great Lives Matter” installation opened to the public on November 21, and it will remain on display through March 7, 2021. This gives everyone time to check it out, multiple times, and to ruminate on the conditions that made its production necessary–conditions that can hopefully be mitigated at least a little bit in the weeks and months to come. The work “is meant to ruffle feathers, but it’s also meant to heal,” he says. “We’ve still got a long way to go, and I want to do my part to help.”
Hull On Earth is a column by journalist and man-about-town Shelton Hull, which appears irregularly in Void Magazine and on Voidlive.com.