Billie Grace Lynn remembers her childhood in Alexandria, Louisiana at a time when segregation still plagued a significant part of the deep south. Now an artist, those memories have deeply affected the way she sees and portrays the subject of race in her work.
Lynn is a professor of sculpture at the University of Miami, and her latest exhibit, "A House Divided," is on display until Sept. 15 at the Lowe Art Museum. It focuses on racial discrimination, identity politics and civic engagement throughout U.S. history.
The pieces on display include a 30-foot sculpture of a black hoodie that visitors can enter; a scale model of the Washington Monument made up of mirrors that can rotate 360 degrees; a hand-drawn timeline where visitors are allowed to add on their own personal experiences of racial discrimination; and a video project where students of all races are asked, "Do you feel safe?"
Lynn sat down with Sundial host Luis Hernandez to discuss her latest work, how the idea came to be and what she hopes visitors will take from the exhibition.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
WLRN: How do you approach pieces that are focused on race?
LYNN: I've spent two years working on this exhibition and this [being white] came up really early on as a problem in the work because, what right does a white woman have to make a really huge hoodie? I really struggled with that and I'm still struggling with it.
I decided that the problem that the hoodie represents is: white people have created it and so it's up to white people to dismantle it. It's with that intention that I'm trying to work with that image as a way to be an ally and as a way to address my own internalized racism.
Let's talk about the hoodie. This is a massive project. Describe it.
So the hoodie is 30-feet-tall. It's sewn from multiple layers of screening and when it's in the museum, it's hung now in the Lowe, it's larger than the walls and the ceiling can contain it. So that means the hoodie is compressed by these white institutional walls as a way to have a metaphor for institutionalized and structural racism. That's why it's so large.
Visitors are invited to go inside the hoodie and sit there, and the weird thing is, when you're inside, you have the feeling that you're not visible from the outside, it makes you invisible. But simultaneously makes you a target.
And of course the hoodie is the symbol that was made famous in the Trayvon Martin shooting. For you, what were those influences in your life that helped shape the way you approached this particular exhibit?
I was raised in Alexandria. That is where the film '12 Years a Slave' takes place and where one of the 150 black men were lynched there in the 1920s. It's a place that is extremely racist. I remember as a child when the schools were desegregated I was told by my mother that if I would see black children at my school and that I didn't have to play with them. It was a very strange thing. We were led in that first day of school and we were told not to look behind us and all the white students were seated in the front of the classroom. The black students who had come to integrate the school were seated in a row along the back and were told not to say anything. I spent my early childhood years in this very awkward, strange environment where we couldn't look at the black children and certainly couldn't play with them and then we self-segregated on the school yard. I knew this was wrong. I knew that it was weird but I couldn't put my finger on what it was.
This interview was produced by Sundial intern Sherrilyn Cabrera with contribution from Sundial producer Alejandra Martinez.