"#UNLOAD: Guns in the Hands of Artists": Decommissioning Gun Violence




Feature Image: Luis Cruz Azaceta
Taperuler Gun, 2014
Tape ruler and decommissioned handgun
3 ½ x 12 inches
Photo by Neil Alexander, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans

Banner Image: Still from “The Price of Life,” performed by Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, Robin Sanders, and Jon Boogz.

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HE’S ONLY Seven Years Old, He’s Not Supposed to Know …

Looking into the wide-eyed, guileless face of Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, the movement artist who, with partner Jon Boogz, founded Movement Art Is (MAI), one would never imagine a warrior who will cut you to the core, force you to gaze into the deep, dark tunnel of your racism and to acknowledge the violence and oppression for which you are culpable. Lil Buck is sprawled on the floor in the gallery of the Fairfield University Art Museum, during the world premiere of a commissioned work, “The Price of Life,” performed on the final day of the exhibit #UNLOAD: Guns in the Hands of Artists. He has transformed into a six-year-old child, mesmerized by the small, tufted teddy bear clasped in his hand. Beside him is a yellow plastic table, upon which is a disassembled gun. Standing over him is spoken-word artist Robin Sanders, who addresses the gallery of onlookers:

As I rummaged through the boys’ clothing section in search of a neon-colored shirt for purchase, I found the coolest one.

It was glow-in-the-dark, and as I turned to present it to him, he looked deeply concerned, hesitant, reluctant even.

And he said to me, “If I wear this shirt that glows in the dark, when the shooter comes, he will see me, and I will be shot.”

Lil Buck is still transfixed by the toy bear as Sanders continues:

None of the emergency procedure meetings or active shooter drills prepared me for this part.

The part where you are living, breathing, heart is beating, but somehow it stops when the illusion of safety comes crumbling down, leaving your fears exposed.

He’s only seven years old, he’s not supposed to know …

Conceived in the mid-1990s, Guns in the Hands of Artists arose in response to the wave of gun violence inundating New Orleans. Moved to action by a little boy who was killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting, artist Brian Borrello and gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara invited artists to use decommissioned gun parts acquired through a New Orleans buyback program to express a thought, make a statement, open a discussion, or otherwise stimulate thinking about guns in our culture. The resulting exhibition, in September 1996 in the city’s Lower Garden District, drew thousands of visitors and significant media attention, thereafter inspiring similar exhibitions in Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon.

In early 2013, Ferrara launched a second iteration of the exhibit, partnering with the New Orleans Police Department, its city council, and its mayor’s office to secure 186 decommissioned handguns and long-barreled guns. These were distributed to over 30 internationally known artists — painters, glass artists, sculptors, photographers, video artists, and poets — to use as raw materials in creating artworks. That exhibit debuted at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in October 2014, later traveling to Colorado’s Aspen Institute and other galleries across the country before its appearance at the Walsh Gallery of the Fairfield Art Museum.

The activist-inspired transformation of decommissioned guns yielded works ranging from the literal to the abstract. Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Taperuler Gun, a decommissioned handgun with a tape measure affixed to the barrel, was “a perfect metaphor for the measurement of power that a gun represents and an extension of the masculine, macho type of thing where the bigger the better,” the artist has stated. Ron Bechet’s Why! (Is it Easier to Get a Gun than an Education, A Gun Instead of Help?) shows a map of New Orleans in red ink, upon which is inscribed the word “WHY?” and which upon closer inspection reveals the names of those murdered in the city between June 1, 2014 and September 17, 2014.

Bradley McCallum, for Smelting: A Gun Legacy, 1996-2014, smelted decommissioned guns and shell casings, pouring the iron-infused brass into a sand-cast of a metal disc shaped like a manhole cover. Musing on how to make a gun disappear, Margaret Evangeline for Disintegrating Relic covered a pistol with wet paint and pressed it into linen; the slick oil spilling over the pistol’s imprint left a stigmata, a manifestation of wounds. William Villalongo’s Sleeping on Reason attached to a small revolver the head of a black-glazed ceramic child, thus creating a perverse symbolism fusing gun and young victim, the work resting on a red velvet pillow. Sidonie Villere’s Residual — a construction of gun cylinders, plywood, acrylic, muslin, and plaster — made gazing into the round barrel of a gun nearly invisible, as if looking at the ghost of the trigger. Rico Gatson’s video “Gun Drop Echo” recorded the metallic sound of a gun dropped into a holding chamber.

In addition to the #UNLOAD exhibit, the Fairfield Museum also held a series of panel discussions and commissioned the installation performance described above, featuring Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, Robin Sanders, and Jon Boogz. “The Price of Life” was performed on October 13, 2018, on the culminating day of the exhibit, for the patrons of the museum, following a champagne reception.

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Sanders stands by Lil Buck, who is crouched beside John Schuerman and Nikki McComb’s Plaything, an installation consisting of a child’s table upon which lies a broken .45 caliber handgun painted in primary colors. The work was inspired by an incident when a neighbor’s child found a loaded handgun in a laundry basket and accidentally killed himself with it. “He’s only seven years old, he’s not supposed to know,” Sanders reminds us, “about Santa Fe High or Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas.”

I tried my best to shield him from it. A deep remorse set in, and I thought of the mothers who never got the chance to protect their babies from the rage, the rage of a gunman.

He’s only seven years old, he’s not supposed to know …

About the satirical school shooter starter pack of emo boys and camo with combat boots and assault weapons and magazines stuffed in dark bags.

He’s only seven years old, he’s not supposed to know …

That his father and I may not be able to protect him and his brothers from cops that feel threatened by his color.

So I tell them, “Son, in the event that this happens, just follow their orders, and, Son, just pray, Son, just pray, Son, just pray, and maybe they’ll grant you the opportunity to walk away.”

Lil Buck shifts his wondering gaze to the brightly painted gun parts on the play table, as Gil Scott-Heron sings “Me and the Devil,” Robert Johnson’s blues song about waking up one morning to the devil knocking at the door. Reassembling the gun, Lil Buck peers down its barrel, his finger on the trigger. Then, executing a corkscrew twist that has him balancing on the tips of his sneakers, he begins a frantic skip in place that turns into long-striding runs that propel him backward. Staring unblinkingly into the eyes of onlookers, Lil Buck backs up into Jonathan Ferrara’s sculpture Excalibur No More, which features a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun inserted, barrel first, into a chunk of Colorado River rock. The spoken-word poetics of Scott-Heron’s The Vulture echo through the gallery: “Standing in the ruins / Of another Black man’s life. […] ‘I am death,’ cried the Vulture.” Lil Buck twists his arms magically into a rifle whose firing powerfully jolts his body.

First published in 1970, The Vulture was Scott-Heron’s debut novel about growing up in the black ghettos of New York. It opens with the image of a body lying on the street; a crowd gathers, horrified, curious, staring at the corpse. It is July 12, 1969, and John Lee, a young black drug dealer, has been shot to death. The story of Lee’s murder is told through the four friends involved. The vulture in Scott-Heron’s novel, and the recitation he adapted from it, personifies the evils of racism, poverty, and drugs, the damage they do to black men. Incorporated into Lil Buck’s performance, the Vulture represents the destructive powers of gun violence in the black community.

Lil Buck translates “The Vulture” through an evolved and idiosyncratic style of street dancing — called “jooking,” from his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee — with agile footwork, quick steps, spins, slides, and quicksilver gestures. His torso slithering as he tiptoes into dizzying spins, Lil Buck personifies both the Vulture and the terror the Vulture sows. “So if you see the Vulture coming, flying circles in your mind / Remember there is no escaping, / for he will follow close behind,” Scott-Heron’s words resound. It is “a battle for your soul and mine.” At this point, Lil Buck, who has been holding tight to the rifle that was his defense, finds that it has pierced his abdomen. And we witness his terrifying fate with a choking breath.

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The gallery crowd moves to a far corner of the space where Boogz stands, bare-chested, on a wooden box before Neil Alexander’s diptych, Growing up in a Gun Culture, My Son, 1996-2014. The work features two life-sized photos of the artist’s son, naked and holding a revolver, which were taken 18 years apart. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please,” Sanders announces, abruptly transforming the scene into a slave auction.

As advertised, we have a fine young man here for bidding.

His past is not known or irrelevant; his future is yours for deciding.

At present, he is in prime healthy condition. He is strong, slightly blemished — but what human isn’t?

To the marksmen wanting to inspect him, you have just a few seconds …

Boogz grimaces, showing gleaming white teeth, then turns sideways so the crowd can appraise his body. “Alright, we’ll start with the bidding at 20 cent a round,” Sanders declares, trapping the audience into the bidding session.

Do I have 25 cent a round? I have 25 cent a round. Do I have 30? Can I get 45? Can I get 50?

Gentleman in the back, can I get 55 cent a round? No?

Fifty cent a round going once, twice — gone … was his life. At such a cheap price.

Thirty rounds of his fate in the magazine, the type of magazine that holds his fate in the chamber, that holds it tightly, and the trigger finger that cocks back and releases finality, or not — men playing God.

Boogz steps off the auction block and lurches along the gallery wall to Skylar Fein’s Kurt Kobong, 2014, a Mossberg 500 shotgun mounted on a wall alongside a crucifix. Nina Simone is singing “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s searing poetic lament protesting the lynching of African Americans (first performed and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939). The lyrics are so explicitly visual that Boogz cannot help but mime them — plucking imaginary fruit from a tree, tracing a rope and noose with his fingers, and fastening it around his neck, the rope pulling him up and suspending him on tiptoes until his neck is broken.

The scene intensifies with fragments of a radio broadcast: “According to law enforcement officials, the president already tweeting … police officials in Texas … not looking good … one suspect already in custody” — as Boogz becomes the fleeing suspect. “Strange Fruit” repeats, this time to a beatbox accompaniment, pushing Boogz into more explosive movements. At one moment, he is the shooter, looking down the barrel of the gun aimed at us, finger on the trigger; in the next moment, he is the victim, taking a crippling fall after being riddled with bullets. His limp, splayed body is, indeed, “a strange and bitter crop.”

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The gallery crowd is moved to the back wall, where John Barnes’s Marigny Warning hangs. A shotgun house constructed out of decommissioned shotgun barrels and mixed wood, the work is an artistic response to the tragic shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white male property owner. Sanders extracts a document inserted into the wooden house and reads the opening words from the Declaration of Independence. “These are the eloquent words of a promissory note written by the architects of our great republic,” Sanders reminds us. “These same eloquent words [were] later recited by a relentless dreamer who marched on Washington in hopes of cashing a check; a check that demanded America make good on […] the promise that all men would be granted equality and the security of justice.” Sanders then launches into a rallying call for resistance:

You give us boundaries and we will go around them. You show us fields of uncharted paths, and we will plow them. Dare us to hope, and we will defy you. Threaten our lives, and we will reimagine the world as it should be, no more conforming to norms that threaten the spirit of unity. […]

We are rebels with cause, we challenge the status quo. It’s no more business as usual. Not the gunman, we the people, we hold the power. It is not mine, it is not yours, it is ours.

Sanders walks past R. Luke DuBois’s Take a Bullet for This City, a Walther PPX 9mm gun that has been programmed to fire a blank for every shooting that took place in the city of New Orleans. She stops beside what appears to be a blank wall, but it is not — it is Adam Mysock’s The Last Six, Under Six, Murdered by a Gun in the Sixth, which consists of bullet holes in the gallery wall at measured intervals that serve as a timeline. Inside each hole is a portrait of a black child under six years old — in all, six children under the age of six who were killed in New Orleans’s Sixth District.

Mysock’s artwork serves as a headboard for Boogz and Lil Buck, who lie sleeping until a cacophony of shots jolts them awake. “From counting sheep to counting casings / Sleep rudely awakened / Dreams tragically interrupted,” Sanders reports. “Bullets, breaking and entering through windows and walls / The house now a war zone.” She narrates a scene of bodies falling to the floor, children crying out, mothers crawling toward their babies, while gunmen spray bullets recklessly. “The scene, a tragedy / Dead bodies in pools of blood / Young lives gone too soon.”

At this point, we discern the role that Sanders is playing in “The Price of Life” — not a distanced narrator observing from afar these scenes of domestic terror, but a mother whose child has succumbed to gun violence:

He had planned to get up and go to school the next day
So that he too could learn to write different stories
But sadly that won’t be.
He’ll be forever, forever absent.
Seems those bullet holes were the final exit
For his little soul.

That scene is then reenacted. Boogz crawls on hands and knees to an imaginary window, peers out, then spins back to shake Lil Buck out of sleep. Together, holding their hands over their ears, they are backed into the corner of the gallery wall. “The bullets came and they sang him a lethal lullaby,” Sanders is recalling, as Boogz’s body, shattered with bullets, falls to the ground. Lil Buck, on his knees, arms raised, crawls back under the covers and falls into a deep sleep. Have these boys died from the barrage, or is this a nightmare?

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“The Price of Life” leaves us to confront the physical and emotional slaughter of black youth in a repetitive cycle that seemingly cannot be halted. It offers a tough-love perspective on gun violence that holds all of us morally accountable for the nearly 40,000 people — 60 percent suicides, 37 percent homicides — who died from guns during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. This is the highest number of such deaths since the government began tracking the statistic in 1979.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 26,000 US children and teenagers have been killed by guns since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. (That number actually understates the total because it is only current to 2016.) A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 1,297 children in the United States die from gun-related injuries every year, making guns the third-leading cause of death for Americans younger than 18. This study also found a wide racial disparity in firearm homicides: although only 13 percent of Americans are black, 56 percent of the children killed in gun homicides are black.

I began writing this essay during a week of American hate, when a white man executed two black people at a grocery store, when a Trump supporter who looked up to white supremacists sent bombs in the mail to the president’s opposition, when an avowed antisemite walked into a synagogue and killed 11 people, yelling, “All Jews must die!” “The Price of Life” is an apt and acute response to this barrage of racism and rage, this crisis of gun violence that threatens to extinguish our collective humanity. “Even now, it’s hard for me to count the amount of times I’ve read those headlines,” Sanders comments,

or the amount of times I’ve seen families of the deceased wear those T-shirts that say “RIP,” or “In Memory of.” […] The amount of times I have read those FB statuses that say, “I can’t believe, I can’t believe you’re gone”; “Young Homie, Rest, Rest in Love.”

“The Price of Life” encapsulates the spiritual and emotional anguish of those who have lost children to gun violence. Yet it does not permit us a comforting pity or sorrow. The performance makes us see an innocent boy’s budding fascination with guns, makes us participants in a slave auction and witnesses to a lynching, makes us stand behind a squadron of police shooting at an unresisting black man, makes us watch the slaughter of children caught in a crossfire while sleeping in their beds.

Is it enough to applaud the performance and donate to the museum? Is it enough to offer our “thoughts and prayers,” to lay flowers, to bemoan the perils of gun violence without holding ourselves accountable, without seeing ourselves implicated? Have we become inured to these tragic incidents that occur on a daily basis?

These are the questions that “The Price of Life” asks.

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I dedicate this essay to my nephew, Daesean “Dae Dae” Hill (8/12/95–11/17/03) who, walking home from his East New York school with his stepfather, five-year-old brother, and three-year-old sister, was fatally shot in crossfire between individuals caught up in a drug dispute; and to his mother, Kimberly Hill Hairston, who forever keeps his memory in our hearts.

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Jon Boogz and Lil Buck would like to thank the Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University for commissioning “The Price of Life.”

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Constance Valis Hill is Five College Professor Emerita of Dance at Hampshire College. She is the author of Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) and Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2010).


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