Oakland exhibit opens generation dialogue
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent, Contra Costa Times
"Question Bridge: Black Males," a new video installation at the Oakland Museum of California, is bent on changing the past, present and future architecture of black men in American society.
Featuring 150 black men from 11 cities who converse without ever meeting face to face, Question Bridge videos are part of a larger project conceived by Chris Johnson, a professor of photography at the California College of the Arts, and codirected by Hank Willis Thomas, an award-winning multimedia artist.
The installation opened simultaneously last week at the Brooklyn Museum, the Sundance Film Festival and two other locations, extending the conversation across the nation. It runs at the Oakland museum through July 8. A user-generated website, live community events and an educational curriculum for high schools stretch the game-changing project into a global dialogue its creators hope will erase the gap between perception and reality.
"Question Bridge is a methodology," said Johnson, "but all groups need to improve communication across separations."
The internal divisions among black men, naturally arising from their diverse personalities and exaggerated by religious, social and economic changes within the black community, are the centerpiece of the installation. The history of racial tension in America adds an incendiary element to the split, burning a wider schism beyond black men and further separating them from the nation's general population.
Reintroducing black men to each other and revealing the complete spectrum of what it means to be a black male in America is the primary purpose of Question Bridge.
Housed in two intimate galleries, visitors first encounter a lenticular image set in a dark, towering panel. The specialized film causes the changing faces to blur on the edges, but pulls into piercing focus when viewed directly. The eyes of the men are arresting: allowing frank, open consideration.
Inside, five flat-panel screens alternate, displaying tightly framed men asking or answering questions as if in conversation. When one man speaks, the other men listen, creating an instant bond with museum visitors, who stand within the semicircular formation of towers and listen.
"Why do people seem so afraid of being smart?" one man asks. The answers are varied -- proving Johnson's point that a black man is not one person.
At nearby kiosks, iPads are mounted on the wall. Museum guests can add their voices to the conversation or tap into the deeper online discussions the installation is generating.
Johnson spent four years developing the videos and found the biggest surprise was that a simple method produced profound responses.
"It was a constant revelation for us," he said. "I would never want to claim that what we have represents the full spectrum of black society. But we did feel it reached a critical mass that amounts to a powerful document."
The impact is partially attributable to the installation's medium: video. There's an accountability to being recorded, as opposed to the anonymity of digital boards, and there's an essential individual aspect to each man's eyes, nose, lips and words.
Thomas emphasized that the men were not scripted or coached.
"Everyone has something valuable and intelligent to say. You just need to give them an opportunity to express it," he suggested, stating both fact and philosophy.
The most compelling question co-producer Bayeté Roth Smith remembers came from a boy of 16 in New Orleans who asked, "I try to live good, but how do you find peace and become a good person when you are surrounded by evil on all sides?"
"We're approaching through the lens of black men," Smith said, "but the questions are really about our shared humanity."