Fort Worth artist and writer Christopher Blay spent the past few years working out an idea he had during a CentralTrak residency in 2014. Training his imagination on an actual conspiracy theory about a time machine inside the Large Hadron Collider, Blay places the stories of seven black victims of police brutality within the last 25 years in the context of old projections of what the 21st century would be like. The resulting multimedia exhibition, KWTXR, opened at South Dallas Cultural Center on July 16.
Blay creates a fantasy narrative rife with art historical references, religious symbolism and a classic hero’s quest. His fictional hero Kara Walker Texas Ranger (or KWTXR) time travels to reverse the outcomes of police violence in seven infamous cases: the beating of Rodney King and the deaths of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The officers responsible are not represented (“That story is already known, it’s already been told,” Blay says) but are suggested through renderings of police cars and KWTXR’s Chuck Norris-worthy hat and boots.
The real Kara Walker, an African-American artist who earned a MacArthur Genius Grant at age 28, creates work exploring race, gender and violence (she is today only in her mid-40s). “She uses race as a prism for her work and she describes the work through that context,” Blay says. “The fictional character is a hybrid construct of the artist and the pop icon Walker Texas Ranger.”
Blay also adapted Walker’s signature black-and-white silhouettes to evoke a solemn mood for reflection in the first of the gallery’s three spaces. “When I started, the work began as a really one-to-one depiction of the scenes, so I looked at the images online and made silhouettes directly from those images,” Blay says, though his silhouettes are made in vinyl. “For instance, there’s a scene of Eric Garner in a chokehold. I used the actual image to create the silhouette so it looked like Garner and it looked like the guy who was choking him, but it felt too connected to the scene — it felt more like reportage than a reflection, which was my intention. I started over and used a model (for the fictional character). Her gestures are loosely based on the scenes depicted.”
The second room displays seven mixed-media series paying tribute to each of the victims, plus a wall-sized tapestry with vinyl KWTXR silhouettes fighting against the awkward hold of the tapestry fabric. But it is the series built of seven small frames that introduces the viewer to who these men (or in Rice’s case, child) were while they lived (King survived the beating incident and died in 2012).
A vibrant, color-saturated portrait was created from the top search results of a simple Google image search. “It was important for me to draw them as I imagined they should be remembered, because when these incidents happen, the narrative splits into their pasts and all the negative things that could somehow justify their killing,” Blay says. “Who they are is, by definition, innocent people until they’ve been given a fair shake by the justice system. Those curated images submitted by their families or submitted by friends show them as I hope they could be remembered.” The third room shows an animated video with a bustling musical soundtrack of jazz, Middle Eastern music and sound effects; this is the machine that KWTXR will use to explore her fantasy narrative of turning back time. “This character embodies the hope and frustration of being able to go back to a space and make things different,” Blay says. “In the video, it’s the whole thing in motion — exploring those spaces, going through time leaping in and out of these bodies, somehow combined with the goddess Shiva, and experiencing the individuals that were affected by the action of the police.”
The video starts with Kara Walker Texas Ranger entering a barn where the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, spins inexplicably. Then the Shiva appears in the middle. An artwork depicting the Shiva was donated to the space as a part of program honoring the international team of scientists working on the project. And the conspiracy theory? Blay found it deep into his research process. “As the conspiracy theory goes, if you superimpose Shiva on the Large Hadron Collider, the ring of fire completely aligns with this large magnet, creating a stargate portal.” For Blay’s purposes, it was perfect.
He is drawn to the optimistic design of Atomic Age machinery and the aesthetic it imposed on that era’s science fiction. “The things I make are embedded in postwar '50s futurism that proposed this Utopia where everything is cool, but we completely ignore our social problems,” he says. “It feels like this ideal that we’re striving for does not include everyone — a futurism related to science fiction that’s revealing a void that is the space for fixing all our social problems, like pulling back the curtain and saying, ‘Here are these machines, here is this future, but it’s not working, so until all these parts get fixed, it’s just going to be a hollow, cardboard future.’”
KWTXR runs through Aug. 20 at the South Dallas Cultural Center, 3400 S. Fitzhugh Ave.