February 26, 2012, Sanford FL: Trayvon Martin, 17, is fatally shot by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, who reports to dispatch “a real suspicious guy” who “looks like he is on drugs or something,” before adding that “these assholes, they always get away.” In 2016, Zimmerman auctions the Kel-Tec PF-9 semi-automatic 9mm used to kill Martin for $250,000.
April 30, 2014, Milwaukee WI: Dontre Hamilton, 31, is fatally shot fourteen times by MPD officer Christopher Manny in Red Arrow Park. Hamilton reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, and, although nonviolent, had an arrest history “directly connected to mental health issues.” In the days leading up to his death, Hamilton expressed concern to his family “that somebody was going to kill him.”
July 17, 2014, Staten Island NY: Eric Garner, 43, dies after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo approaches Garner from behind and administers an illegal chokehold for fifteen seconds. On a cell phone video recorded by Ramsey Orta, Garner is heard saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times before dying on the sidewalk.
August 9, 2014, Ferguson MO: Michael Brown, 18, is fatally shot on a residential street at least six times by FPD officer Darren Wilson. Witnesses maintain that Brown had his hands up, but these statements are not considered “credible.” Following the incident, a fundraiser is launched in support of Wilson, and private donations for the unindicted officer officially exceed $500,000.
The list, as you know, goes on—Levar Jones (35, fatally shot by SCHP multiple times in the back while fetching his wallet), Tamir Rice (12, fatally shot by CPD while playing with a toy gun in a city park), Philando Castile (32, fatally shot by MPD while cooperating during a routine traffic stop)—each name practically household; different versions of the same story echoing through the halls of our cultural Babel, each character sharing the same qualities: the cops flinty-eyed and white, the victims unarmed and black.
This is not new. Racism has not ebbed. In Trump’s America (because, let’s face it, Presidency or not, this is Trump’s America—his followers gobble carrot-on-a-stick propaganda as if it were communion, fueling their prairieland venom, their junkyard faith and patriotic bigotry, igniting the darkest parts of their hearts [Ann Coulter: “I worship [Trump] like the North Koreans worship the ‘Dear Leaders’—yes, I would die for him.”]), racial bias has become standard, acceptable ideology.
So, at a time in our country’s besmirched history when we fear the police and the GOP nominee’s entire campaign rides on discrimination and institutional hatred, how are we expected to react?
Atlanta-based painter Horace Imhotep creates beautiful, subversive, and darkly comical art.
“My work has always been charged,” Horace tells me over the phone, following his exhibition A Letter from the South at City Wide Artists in Minneapolis. “I think in this climate, [racism] was speaking to me at the time. That was the energy that I was feeling. [A Letter] was commentary on things that I’ve seen, things that I’ve heard, things that I’ve felt.”
Horace Imhotep. "The Past - Eric Garner (from The Trinity)," (2016). Mixed medium. 4 x 4 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "The Present - Trayvon Martin (from The Trinity)," (2016). Mixed medium. 4 x 4 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "The Future - Michael Brown (from The Trinity)," (2016). Mixed medium. 4 x 4 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
The pieces in A Letter are animated, bold, courageous, and uncomfortable. The artist plays with racial stereotypes the way Alphonse Allais played with color and words or Piero Manzoni with organic matter. It’s a reaction, sure, and though the word Nigger is front and center, spotlighted, the work “comes from a place of love.”
“You know, medicine never tastes good,” Horace says. “Truth doesn’t always taste good. We have to start having these harsh discussions. This is getting ridiculous, you know? This has lasted too long.”
I ask how he got started.
“I was in Cleveland working, doing advertising,” he says. “There was no creativity there, and I was like I have to figure out something to do with my life, and it cannot be this because this has absolutely no soul to it.” He laughs. “It had no soul at all, bro. No soul. I’m 42, and the approach was, back then, if you want to waste your time constructively, go back to school.”
So, following his brother, Horace moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Morehouse College (Notable Alumni: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Spike Lee, et al.). He studied Biology with “an Art History minor” that quickly became his major.
There’s something cool and casual, almost flippant, in the way Horace discusses his life and his work. Something powerfully forgiving and, well, (to this cynic) refreshingly not cynical in the way he talks about racism (on Trump supporters: “Maybe if we just talk to these people a certain way, maybe we can help. Maybe not—some people, that’s all they have is hate. You take that from them, they have absolutely nothing.”).
I ask how he hooked up with Teqen Zéa – Aida, owner of City Wide Artists.
“A friend of mine, Teri Anvid,” he says. “She was my neighbor. I had some of the paintings I’d done in college just sort of hanging on the wall.” Unprompted, Horace modestly feels the need to explain this: “They were hanging because if you keep them on the floor they have more chances of getting destroyed. I have dogs.”
He continues: “She was in the house, and she inquired about the paintings. And my wife was like, Oh that’s Horace. He paints.”
“I hadn’t painted in years,” he says. “It’d been almost fifteen years since I had done any painting. My wife was always pushing me to paint, but at the time I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. Teri saw the paintings and was like, Oh no no no no no no, you have to show. If I could help you facilitate a show, would you do it? And I was like, cool.”
The opening at City Wide was of course a hit.
“My first trip to Minneapolis was really cool,” he tells me. “I love the city, and the community is great as far as the arts. It’s really cool.”
On fuel for his work: “My brother and I, we experienced police violence at a young age. My father experienced it. All of my friends have experienced it. Most of the people I know, they’ve experienced some type of negative run-in with the police that left them with ill feelings.
Horace Imhotep. "Birds Eye," (2016). Acrylic. 5 x 5 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "Tar Soap - Slick & Black Chem. Prod.," (2014). Acrylic. 3 x 5 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "Glow," (2016). Acrylic. 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "Betanigga Consortium," (2014). Acrylic. 5 x 4 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "A Tasty Morsel," (2014). Acrylic. 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "Ancestral Clay," (2016). Acrylic. 4 x 6 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
Horace Imhotep. "Wade in the Water Variant," (2013). Acrylic. 80 inches x 3 feet. Courtesy the artist and City Wide Artists, Minneapolis.
“It’s interesting, because I have—and this might sound cliché, it’s like saying I have a black friend—I have law enforcement in my family. I’ll say this: that right there was probably the saving grace that didn’t allow me to just be bitter towards law enforcement.”
If Horace’s attitude is any indication, there seem to have been more than a few saving graces in his life. How to remain practically Zen in the face of widespread police violence and workaday racism is incredible.
“I try not to produce the [artwork] when the feelings are raw,” he says. “I try to wait and sit with it, because I don’t want to be irresponsible with the voice. In that raw, angry, burn-it-all-down…there’s a lot that can be missed there. The beauty of certain things can be missed. The most important thing is to be responsible, to create some type of dialogue.
“The truth of the matter is that the younger generation is just smarter and more discerning. They ask the hard questions. Whereas my generation—Generation X—was easily pacified, and were more likely to just kick that problem down the road, and not really care that someone’s gonna have to deal with that at some point. And the younger generation, they’re like No, let’s deal with it now.”
He admits: “I was a little worried about this generation in the beginning. But I’m very confident that there could be real change made. And it’s not a black or a white thing. It’s a people thing. This shit needs to change.”
A Letter from the South is showing now thru Oct. 7th at City Wide Artists.
Special thanks to Teqen Zéa – Aida.