Flint, MI — The Flint Institute of Art’s current series of woodcut prints depicts sixteen victims of police violence as imagined in their final moments by Matthew Wead, a 36-year-old Chicago artist.
Wead, having experienced his own jarring interactions with law enforcement, says he started the project when he was in grad school, recalling a video of a UCLA student being harassed and tased by a security guard.
“It just struck a nerve with me … I know what it’s like to have a gun pulled on you, so I started thinking about the news. As a Black person, you know about experiences with police officers, the shootings, and I thought about a different way of presenting shooting targets.”
He went on to say, “Literally, we’re called shooting targets, so I made them the size and shape of shooting targets, that close-up look in the eyes. Would you be able to shoot that person in the last moment?”
The FIA decided to display the exhibit, which they titled Black Matters, following the murder of George Floyd and soon-after public outrage, in light of its relevance to today’s social climate.
At first, Wead’s idea was to make woodcuts, ink them up, and print multiple editions of each as a way of commenting on how the number of killings continues to multiply. “There will always be more shooting targets,” he said.
While that idea inspired the use off woodcuts, the technique he used helped add a level of raw emotion to the images he wouldn’t have been able to invoke with any other method, he said.
“It was the way that I made the wood chippings. There’s this aggressive, almost primal method to it. It’s more about the emotion behind it than the actual subject matter and you can’t really get that out of a painting or drawing,” he said.
That isn’t the only thing that adds to the emotional factor of these portraits. Wead took it upon himself to watch videos of the brutality, and tried to recreate some of those moments, using himself as a model.
“I laid down and pretended somebody was on my neck and that was a little traumatic for me. It’s kind of emotionally exhausting to do that,” he said.
While the process was taxing, Mead maintains that it was satisfying to be able to memorialize these people who are so often forgotten, swept up in a sea of unnamed casualties.
Wead spoke more about his intent, saying, “When you look at the victims, you’re looking at them from the point of view of the cop in a way, but you’re also feeling empathy for the person who got shot … I think that was the biggest thing, is I wanted to show empathy rather than condemn the cops, even though whatever they did is bad.”
Despite having ended the project in 2009, he decided to pick things back up after receiving a call from the FIA, and added three new prints that picture George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. He says he felt he should do something for the latest victims.
The thirteen he had previously created include Mostafa Tabatabainejad, Fred Hampton, Amadou Diallo, Kiehl Coppin, Miguel Cáceres Cruz, Randolph Evans, Sean Bell, Michael Pleasance, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Ronald Madison, Johnny Gammage, DeOnte Rawlings, and Ronald Madison.
“I think originally my artwork was only about social messages, social statements. It was like, Hey look what’s going on, almost in a passive way. I’ve always wanted you to step into the shoes of the person, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
“As I’m growing older, I think, in a way, [art] is a form of activism. I’m getting more active, the messages are more in your face instead of taking that passive role … I mean, even print is a form of social activism. It’s meant to be multiplied and passed around.”
The exhibit opened on July 7 as a part of the FIA’s grand reopening following COVID-19 shut-downs. It will be available for viewing up until October 11, 2020.