Charleston artist featured in Philly reflects on Southern racism

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Charleston, S.C.-based artist Colin Quashie. (Facebook)

Colin Quashie was eating inside Reading Terminal Market and scrolling through his smartphone's Facebook app, hunting for names. 
 
The night before, on June 17, nine people were gunned down inside a historically African American church in Charleston, S.C., nine miles from Quashie's home. 
 
As he scrolled, the Charleston-based artist, who was in town visiting his Old City exhibit on the portrayal of black Americans in the media, wondered whether any friends were among the dead at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
 
Quashie stopped on the face of Cynthia Graham Hurd.
 
"And I dropped the phone," he said.
 
Hurd, who served as a Charleston County librarian for 31 years, was killed in the racially motivated massacre. She was 54.
 
"She's one of the first people I met there, and we've had a wonderful friendship for the last 25 years now," Quashie said. "She's been an absolute peach of a person. It was devastating."
 
The exhibit, "Plan-ta-shun: An Installation by Artist Colin Quashie," which at its core grapples with racism in the American South, is on display now through Aug. 16 at the African American Museum. Its themes are appropriate as opinions and discussions about a post-racial America have become national conversation.
 
Charleston, a progressive city set in a conservative and poor southern state, has been plagued by two recent shootings where race has been as a factor: a white police officer gunned down an unarmed and fleeing black man in the sister city of North Charleston in April, and then the June 17 church shooting.
 
"Which goes to show you it can happen anywhere," said Quashie, 52, reflecting on the recent events. "No one is immune to this."
 
In the aftermath of the church shooting, the Confederate flag, which was displayed by the shooting suspect, became the symbol of a country that has made strides toward racial equality but remains unequal. In the weeks since the shootings, rebel flags were removed from store fronts and online marketplaces; several sister states that constituted the Confederacy took it down or are calling for its removal; and, most notably, the South Carolina statehouse instituted the flag's removal from its grounds.
 
While Quashie admitted he was happy about the flag's almost-universal banishment, he admits the symbol's power has not yet followed its removal. 
 
"This was a symbol of 'who has power here; who will maintain this power; and as long as you do what you're supposed to do, we gonna get along fine on the surface,' " he said. "It's a symbol of that Southern culture and they wrap it in that whole blanket of pride and Southern heritage, but clearly it's a symbol of, 'We are in control.' "
 
A question that Quashie considers: Will these movements to stifle the Confederate symbol ignite a backlash? There was always a segment of the Southern population that had control, whether overt or covert, and those power structures are eroding, he said.
 
"And the main symbol of those power structures is coming down," he said. "There's a great deal of damage that can still be done, because that's the crowd that still has their hands on the money, they're still pulling the switches. 
 
"And I think for the next two generations here," he added, "the next couple of decades, it's going to be a very fraught time."
 
 
The collection of art that is on display this summer, he said, is meant to pose questions, and the viewer is intended to introduce these questions and ideas into their personal conversations. 
 
"I think we're moving towards having a conversation, or better yet, I think whites are moving toward having that conversation. I don't think blacks have to come too far," he said. "The only movement I see now is amongst whites, ... and I'm finally starting to see them starting to recognize that we have a problem." 
 
He said there are two different realities that the country is living in: "We know you, but you don't know us."
 
"And I also tell people what upsets black people about white people is the fact that you are totally oblivious to this thing that's going on," he said. "And not only are you oblivious, you have the luxury of being oblivious to it."
 
Quashie said it will take two generations before the country can reap the benefits of these recent changes and movements. 
 
"But, in that time, there's going to be a lot of danger," he said. "And I got a feeling that it's going to get a little more worse before we come out of this thing. A lot more reactive moments, shall we say."
 
Well, it should provide plenty of material for art.
 
"Yeah," he said. "It's good for art and comedy."