Activists call white artist's Michael Brown 'death scene' exhibit 'atrocious' and exploitive
18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9. (Facebook)

If you’re not careful as you walk into the Gallery Guichard on Chicago’s south side, you could trip over police tape that surrounds a life-size mannequin of Michael Brown’s dead body while a video of Eartha Kitt looks over him singing Angelitos Negros .

Nooses and other paraphernalia largely associated with racism in the south decorate the rest of the space, a neon sign spelling out “Strange Fruit” glares against a white wall, and a Confederate flag with the names of the nine victims of the Charleston massacre – with a price tag of $4,500 – hangs behind the Kitt video. The piece sold over the weekend.

The goal of this exhibition, entitled Confronting Truths: Wake Up!, by New Orleans-based artist Ti-Rock Moore is to start a larger discussion on the violence she sees white privilege produce in America from her perspective as a white female artist.

However, the exhibition has also been criticised on the grounds that it exploits the tragedy black Americans face for profit through the artist’s own white privilege.

“I definitely didn’t want to go [at first],” Johnetta “Netta” Elizie, an activist and high profile leader of anti-police violence group We the Protesters told the Guardian after visiting the Chicago gallery. “I felt it would do me no good to go there as far as my spirit is concerned.”

Related: US poet defends reading of Michael Brown autopsy report as a poem

Elizie had read local reports of the installation at the exhibition that vividly recreates the murder scene of Brown, who was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson and left for hours in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

But when friends from Ferguson drove to see the exhibition and voice their disdain for something that used the death of Brown as an artwork so soon after the tragedy, she felt she needed to go and support them.

“The artwork was atrocious,” she said. “The way she is using those images is just disgusting.”

While walking around the gallery, which sits in the Bronzeville neighborhood of the city and is an area affected by gun violence , Elizie used Periscope to live-stream to her 51,000 followers and the exhibition, which had garnered little attention in the previous few days, exploded across social media – with most responses seeming to share her disgust.

Since then the exhibition has gone viral and has led to hate mail and even death threats directed at the gallery, according to the owners, Andre and Frances Guichard. But they seem at ease with the sharp responses, saying they believe the work will help heal a country torn by racism.

“I think what makes this exhibition really unique is that it’s really bold and blunt, and it’s right in your face,” Andre Guichard told the Guardian. “But when you really think about racism, racism can be bold and blunt and right in your face, too.”

Guichard and his wife say the exhibition is not only timely but also responsible due its depiction of what they think art should engage with: our contemporary moment.

“When you have people who are trafficking young ladies across the globe and the people speaking up for them aren’t the people being trafficked,” Frances Guichard told the Guardian. “The people [speaking up] are those who care about making sure that it’s just based on humanity and that’s Ti-Rock.

“She’s not trying to be black or be part of the black experience,” Frances continued when asked if Moore was the art-world equivalent of viral sensation Rachel Dolezal , who identifies as a black woman but was born white. “If she was trying to be black, she would [for example] try to be somebody that infiltrated into sex trafficking and [being] victimized, but she didn’t do that.”

The Guichards argue that even though her work is depicting violence against black people it is still appropriate for her to produce it as an artist since the point is to show how Moore’s own white privilege helps perpetuate said violence when the country does not work to change that system.

“My whiteness carries an unearned advantage in the American system,” Moore said in a 2014 interview before her Brown installation had made its debut. “We’re living in a society of very complicated systems that create advantages for white people and disadvantages for others. That’s what my work is about.”

Moore did not respond to requests from the Guardian to comment about her work and her latest exhibition at the time of reporting.

The gallery plans to donate 10% of the money from any artwork sold to a charity aimed at ending police violence. They are currently deciding on the specifics of where that potential gift will go.

“This [exhibition] is something that needs to stay alive because we need to do what Ti-Rock says and understand what white privilege does to the African American community,” Frances Guichard said.

Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was in Chicago last week and attended the opening night of the exhibition. Before arriving, she learned that the piece specifically about her late son was not a photograph, as she had assumed, but an actual recreation of the scene.

She requested the gallery cover it up while she visited because it would have been too painful for her to witness, which they did.

The piece is one of the few being shown that isn’t for sale.

by Zach Stafford, Chicago © Guardian News and Media 2015