Lingering Effects of 1921
Two TAF Artists, Molly Dilworth and Crystal Z Campbell, created installations that were on display this past weekend in coordination with Juneteenth and the recent anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I sat down with each of them to learn more about the inspiration, process and intent behind these works.
Oklahoma native Crystal Z Campbell’s installation, Searcher, was on view at John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation Park from June 17-June 19.
RM: Could you describe the project you recently installed at the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center?
CC: Searcher is a public light meditation on the former grounds of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (now John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation Park). Searcher illuminates the park after dusk for a few hours each night and is a symbolic search for those who were never accounted for after the riot, missing persons who fled or whose deaths were covered in mass burials. Additionally, I wanted to think about Juneteenth and the messenger who didn’t make it to deliver the news of freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. While searchlights are now co-opted for advertising, historically searchlights were used in periods of war to alert allies or enemies.
RM: When did you begin making work about the Tulsa Race Massacre?
CC: The Tulsa Race Massacre didn’t enter the Oklahoma curriculum until the last few years, so I was incredibly surprised to learn about the Massacre in my late 20’s. I process information very slowly, I come to subjects for my work usually by accident. There’s a long fermentation period and if a story stays with me, it ends up finding its way into my work.
I first worked on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on another installation called Paradise. I was thinking a lot about James Turrell’s light installations and the Winchester Mystery House with its stairs to nowhere. Both relate to architecture concepts, portals and spirituality. This led me to devising a portal opening on the ceiling of the installation. When viewers walked into the room, they were immediately confronted by blue light and the overwhelming smell of charred burning wood. There was nothing but blue light surrounding the viewer so the narrative of fire narrative was left to the viewer’s imagination and like Searcher, can take on a spiritual dimension.
I also have a mixed-media installation currently showing at Living Arts called Whistle Theory that incorporates African Drums, slides and video with witness testimonies of Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors.
Molly Dilworth’s project, Flag State:Greenwood, is an extension of a public art project, Flag State, that she began while living in Brooklyn and has been developing for the past three years. It is currently installed along Archer Street, from Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. to Greenwood Ave.
RM: Can you describe the origin of your Flag State project?
MD: There are 50 flags in total, made out of sails that are cut apart, sewn together, and appliqued. The project initially grew out of thinking about the use of global trade and labor around the world. Prior to flags, I was making paintings highlighting the legacy of the underground railroad in Manhattan at the sites of the safe houses. The paintings progressed into flags, which were more portable and cheaper to produce.
RM: How did you become inspired to continue this project in Tulsa?
MD: Coming to Tulsa I saw a connection to my interests in the relationship between wealth and power in the history of the Greenwood District and Oklahoma’s ties to the oil fields. Oklahoma had this moment before the discovery of oil where, in a way, it was a free state. It wasn’t part of the Union yet, and the land was seen as unusable–it was hard to farm. So marginalized populations migrated there and were able to build wealth and live freely. That closed right when the oil was discovered. Oklahoma joined the union, and the very first law passed was a segregation law.
RM: Where did you do a lot of your research?
MD: Crystal and I both started at the Greenwood Cultural Center. They gave a lot of archives to the Tulsa Historical Society. They don’t allow access to the original archives anymore–there is too much demand, and the documents are very old. So they created an app, which I recently purchased. The app is ten dollars and only works on iPads. They may still be adding to it, but there seemed to me to be a lot missing. There is an interview with a former mayor, and various white people who were around during the time, but there is only one interview included from a survivor.
RM: Do you get a sense that things are still being covered up?
MD: Yes. I mean, it’s really hard not to feel that way. At the Historical Society the app is available, but there is only one iPad on a stand. If you are in a wheelchair you can’t access it. The first time we went by it wasn’t working. Rena Detrixhe went by two weeks later and it still wasn’t working. The University of Tulsa does, however, have a great archive, and they were incredibly helpful throughout this process.
RM: Why did you choose Archer Street for your installation?
MD: I wanted to put the flags up along Archer because it is along the railroad tracks where there is this kind of demarcation of North and South Tulsa, and, of course, where so many people lost their lives.
RM: Are the flags meant to be memorials for the lives lost?
MD: Tulsa and Oklahoma are working on it, but the extent of what happened it is still, in some way, unacknowledged. They aren’t officially memorial flags, but I did want to mark what happened. They are 50 x 70 inches, roughly the size of a person. They are hand made. So there is that connection to one flag, one person, somebody’s labor, mine in this case. It’s tricky because I wasn’t here, I wasn’t alive, but I do feel like I want to memorialize those lives that were taken. In a small way, but in a way that I know how.
It’s a difficult thing to talk about. I’m white. I’ve been white all my life. White America doesn’t talk about this stuff, and there are a lot of reasons for that, but I feel like one impulse is that it’s not our problem. It’s not our thing to solve. And there’s shame and guilt too, and a worry of saying the wrong thing. It’s all of our job together to acknowledge what happened…reparations, whatever that may be, we can’t just sweep it under the rug and move on.