Question Bridge Returns to OMCA

The highly acclaimed, five-screen video installation that visited the Oakland Museum of California in 2012 becomes a part of the museum’s permanent collection.


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Photo courtesy of the artists

Listen: It’s clearly time for sanctuary.

Heralding the return of Question Bridge: Black Males, a highly acclaimed, five-screen video installation that visited the Oakland Museum of California in 2012, Senior Curator of Art Rene de Guzman says the caliber of the artists involved, complex topics addressed, and enthusiastic community response demand that the exhibition becomes a part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“Question Bridge is like going to church in this day and age when people need a space to reflect on how we view each other,” said de Guzman. “We’re taking it into the museum permanently.”

Guzman, OMCA Deputy Director Kelly McKinley, and other people involved in the museum’s acquisition decisions believe the work carries special significance in Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. Taking the work into the permanent collection means it is held in public trust as a cultural asset for the community, according to Communications Manager Lindsay Wright. In a broad sense, housing Question Bridge in a museum collection conveys social and industry validation.

The 2,000-square-foot exhibition, framed by towering walls as if for safety and lit with ambient lighting or the soft glow of video monitors, provides informal seating for groups or individuals. The physical layout is a metaphor for sanctuary: a chapel, a tiny space for precious conversations and reflection. On video screens arranged to simulate face-to-face, ask-and-tell conversations, a diverse group of 150 black men—mostly everyday males from across the United States—speak about community, love, fatherhood, family, black identity in America, and more.

The installation is a collaborative work by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. Intentionally, provocatively, the exhibition has traveled since 2012 to over 40 venues and has spawned community programming, including eight Question Bridge roundtables with black males speaking to one another in public forums. A complete educational curriculum, free to the over 1,000 educators who have downloaded it thus far, brings Question Bridge to classrooms. A QB Educational Initiative that Johnson hopes to launch seeks to establish the curriculum in public schools. A teacher-training portion of the program needs a partnering professional educational company or individual to be realized and piloted.

Perhaps the greatest accolade—other than the hundreds of people who have reached out to express their appreciation on the QB website or in person to Johnson (also a professor of photography at the California College of the Arts)—is QB’s induction in 2016 into the permanent collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Because it is digital media, the project can be presented and exist in the permanent collections at a variety of institutions, much like limited-edition photography exhibits. “Nothing resonates more than being a part of national history. That’s simply an honor,” said Johnson, about the work being in the Smithsonian.

Amazed by what he calls “remarkable demand,” Johnson is struck by how the streamlined presentation of voices of black males who have something to say—not just to each other, but also to culture as a whole—has established a deep, human presence for black men. “We do these projects with the ambition they will change minds and hearts. Does it do what we intended?” Johnson said. “We had an ambitious goal: a person coming into the installation with stereotypical views would leave with a different sense of the range that ordinary, everyday black men hold. I have real confidence that that experience actually happens.”

Perhaps confidence made even more real because QB has altered Johnson himself. The project engaged him in unprecedented ways. “Question Bridge pulled me deep into the black community in a way I haven’t been before. I teach at a school where I’m one of the few African Americans, and the field of professional photography is largely a white field. I came to San Francisco as a hippie when there weren’t that many African Americans in the Haight-Ashbury area. The re-absorption into the heart of the black community was a turning point for me. It’s also how I met my wife.”

On a broader level, the project has caused him to become an artist whose work centers on social issues that involve change. The national and international attention QB has brought to his art has been transformative, he said.

The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the presence of Barack Obama as president of the United States are two phenomena he says made Question Bridge undeniably resonant within black culture and society since the project’s inception. The simple, everyday lives and thoughts of the black men featured in Question Bridge—sharpened with urgency by conflicts between police and black males, the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts young people of color, the 2016 election and political divisiveness it has unleashed, and other social trauma—remain intensely moving, offering fresh insights, even revelations.

Thousands of questions and answers exchanged between black men have also developed into a methodology that includes unexpected outgrowth: “I got an email from two women in England,” he said. “They want to use it for a post-Brexit project. Anne Bluethenthal, a choreographer in San Francisco, plans to use it for a [multidisciplinary] project on homelessness.”

Looking ahead and finding both positive and negative perspective, QB, as a permanent part of OMCA, provides uplift in the face of reality. It seems, however, there will be no lessening in the need for sanctuary and Question Bridge.

 

Question Bridge: Black Males runs Sept. 29-Feb. 25, 2018, at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, 94607, 510-318-8400, MuseumCa.org.

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