Birmingham, Alabama was notorious in 1963 as it was in this city that Martin Luther King Jr. launched Project C, one of the most influential campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham became the model for non-violent demonstrations, with citizens striving to end the segregation laws enforced throughout the city. It was the unwarranted bombings on the night of 11 May 1963, targeting black leaders of Project C, which provoked the civil disorder of the race riots. Adults and children protesting in reaction to such cruel events were met with violent attacks from the police and federal troops using high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs. Such a brutal and unprecedented event was broadcasted by television cameras and captured by photographers, producing some of the most iconic and troubling images of the Civil Rights Movement.
Kelley Walker’s interest in the appropriation of popular images echoes and expands upon the artistic practices pioneered by Andy Warhol. Walker’s choice to use the recognisable image of a white policeman and police dog attacking a black protester immediately recalls Andy Warhol’s Race Riot series from 1963-64, in which the artist silkscreened photographs from the same Civil Rights event taken by photographers from the Black Star Press Agency onto canvas. Walker engages in a dialogue with Warhol, making a direct reference to his Race Riot works in the title of the present triptych. While the image appropriated by Walker was taken by Bill Hudson, a photographer working for a different photo agency, the title of the present work explicitly references Warhol’s photographic source.
Advancing the artistic methods employed by Warhol, Walker takes on a distinctly contemporary approach to materials and techniques. In the case of Black Star Press the artist began experimenting with the process of silkscreening and chocolate. Replacing the traditional silkscreening material of ink, Walker first melted chocolate and then dripped and splattered it onto the screen so that he could print the chocolate explosions over the legendary Civil Rights image. With the photograph of racial unrest acting as a substrate, Walker’s added intervention of splattering and smearing chocolate accentuates its impact, as these symbolic and expressive gestures mimic the violence. Moreover, the artist’s use of three different kinds of chocolate – white, milk and dark – has clear racial connotations and consequently both emphasises and amplifies the racially-charged nature of the image. In this way and in contrast to Warhol, Walker endeavours to re-energise the image, accentuating the work’s long-lasting resonance. Black Star Press is emblematic of Kelley Walker’s appropriation of mass imagery for the purposes of political and social commentary, creating powerful and thought-provoking works of art.
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