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Structural Flaws: Kim Rice’s “Inheritance” Visualizes Legacies of White Supremacy

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It’s fitting that the first artwork I encounter in Inheritance, Kim Rice’s solo exhibition at the Peale Center, involves a last will and testament. Hanging from the ceiling, a slightly yellowed map of the thirteen colonies has been laboriously cut into with text from the will of one William Lewis Venable of Haymarket, Virginia, settling up his estate. The map looks like it was liberated from some long-vacant primary school classroom. A light shines and creates a shadow on the wall behind, making the excised text more legible and less distracted by the noisy map terrain. Scanning the text, my eye lands on the phrase “give my wife Frances W. Venable all of the negroes that I received.”

The plain, cruel passive voice in that phrase, “that I received,” is loud in this otherwise empty room. It obfuscates the violence of this action and exculpates the actors—not unlike the way journalists use the passive voice when talking about police shootings. Of course, in the case of Venable’s will, this likely wasn’t intentional rhetoric, but it shows how centuries of colonizing and subjugating other humans have oriented white people to regard themselves as superior to the “other.” White supremacy is the air: it is something lots of white people hardly think about until asked, directed, or forced to do so.

Installation view of Kim Rice: Inheritance at the Peale Center

Instead of obscuring or running from or being immobilized by these implications, as white people are wont to do, artist Kim Rice uses them as the substance of her multimedia weaving and cut-paper installations. Taking a broad view of institutional and systemic racism as well as a close look at her own personal, familial culpability (William Lewis Venable was one of her ancestors, a 4th-great-grandfather on her father’s side), Rice examines the way that white Americans have been able to build wealth and power while Black families have been decimated under the same systems. 

Adjacent to the map piece hangs a large poster that quotes “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay in which Ta-Nehisi Coates outlines how the practice of redlining allowed white Americans to build wealth through homeownership, while cutting off Black Americans from doing the same through predatory agreements and denial of legitimate mortgages. In this excerpt, Coates condemns the “laments about ‘black pathology,’ […] in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.” Redlining and racial residential segregation flourished legally with the National Housing Act of 1934 and the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration. The practice continued until the Fair Housing Act made it illegal in 1968, but its effects are still visible today as many redlined and historically Black neighborhoods across the country remain segregated and deprived of resources. 

 

Installation view of Kim Rice: Inheritance at the Peale Center

Of all the places this body of work might be shown in Baltimore, the Peale makes the most sense as a museum building with such a discursive history itself, a place that has been undergoing renovation and preservation off and on well before I first walked up its steps to see Abigail DeVille’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars back in 2016. In that site-specific show, which the now-defunct Contemporary put on, the artist engaged the messiness of history through a kind of maximalist immersion that engaged all of the senses. Through her work, DeVille alluded to specific aspects of the Peale’s own history and its various pasts as a museum, Baltimore’s City Hall, a secondary school for African American students, the Bureau of Water Supply, a vacant building, a museum again, a vacant building again, with a few other identities in between. Exhibiting just over a year after the Baltimore Uprising, too, the artist used local footage from those protests and nestled this work among the wider context of the city and its past uprisings. For me, Rice’s work builds upon the affective dimensions of DeVille’s, even if it’s more indirect. I’m grateful to have experienced both shows in the same location. 

Quotes about white supremacy and racism from scholars and critical theorists such as Ian Haney Lopez, Beverly Daniel Tatum, bell hooks, and Richard Dyer, among others, pop up like footnotes throughout Inheritance, on view at the Peale through January 24, 2021. (The museum is currently closed due to COVID-19.) The exhibition, curated by Jeffrey Kent, takes over most of the three-story museum, and the artist uses materials such as old maps, zip ties, magazines, and Tyvek—and craft idioms like weaving, quilting, and papercutting—to soberly investigate the ways that white supremacy structures our world. 

Rice began researching the constructions of race in 2010 and began researching and making art about whiteness specifically in 2014. Her art feels intended to educate a viewer who probably never learned this stuff in school (because even basic US history is suppressed), but it doesn’t read as didactic. With her choice of everyday craft and materials, Rice makes the challenging content more approachable. And though the work is not installed chronologically, there is a clear evolution in the thought and understanding behind these series of works, which could conceivably be explored endlessly.

 

Kim Rice, "The Divide–New Orleans," 2018, roofing paper, New Orleans HOLC maps
The technique of weaving is a clear reference to the way whiteness is embedded into the myths America tells about itself.
Rebekah Kirkman

Rice whited out the United States in another map piece, and filled in the land with text from the Naturalization Act of 1790, the first law that delineated who could be a citizen in this country: anyone who was a “free white person,” which really only meant white men for a time. This legislation granted citizenship for “aliens” who could immigrate and then assimilate into the elastic category of “white,” while at the same time denying that same power to everybody else who didn’t fit that description. In another piece, Rice altered an image of the Founding Fathers standing in front of an American flag, cutting into the background and splicing in text from the Virginia slave codes, weaving them across the men’s mouths like masks.

In these pieces, the technique of weaving is a clear reference to the way whiteness is embedded into the myths America tells about itself. Another series of similarly altered magazine covers uses selective weaving to show in simple terms how whiteness pervades modern media too. In a 2014 piece, the cover of a Smithsonian Magazine depicts George Washington (who signed the 1790 Naturalization Act and the 1795 version that replaced it) giving a coy, shushing gesture to complement the headline, “Secrets of American History.” Behind him red, white, and blue stripes cut across diagonally; the middle white stripe is composed of woven caucasian flesh tones. 

Many of Rice’s magazine collages pull at some of the more insidious facets of white supremacy in our media and culture, often with a disarming cleverness and an impressively fussy yet subtle technique. A Pacific Standard cover with the headline “CONFIDENT IDIOTS” features a white man whom the artist has adorned with a dunce cap made of minuscule strips of woven white skin tones. On the cover of Harvard Business Review, under the headline “How to Spot Talent,” a baby wears glasses filled in with tiny strips of white skin woven over the lenses. These collages are both suggestive of the myth of meritocracy, which is reinforced when whiteness is the default in media, or when whites hold disproportionate influence in any given situation. A 2010 cover of Entertainment Weekly shows actress Katherine Heigl posing penitently behind the headline “I’m Sorry,” apparently referencing a spat with Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Into the image, Rice sliced the word “INNOCENT,” inspiring boundless and meandering interpretations: white women being repeatedly and easily forgiven for mistakes (a privilege typically not afforded to Black women and women of color; see also Lena Dunham); white women’s innocence historically used as justification for violence towards black people; white women weaponizing their own (sometimes falsely asserted) victimhood. These connections admittedly feel quite far out of bounds from the specifics of their source material, but if the interpersonal and systemic iterations of racism are intertwined, so too are their oppressive causes.

 

Kim Rice, "How to Spot Talent," 2016, woven magazines
Kim Rice, "Confident Idiots," 2016, woven magazines

[Image: Kim Rice, “Ghosts of Our Past,” 2019, family documents]

In another set of works, Rice digs further into her family history and how her present-day class status is linked with the fact that her ancestors had enslaved African people. The piece “Inheritance” is a collage of sections from redlining maps—the “residential security maps” in which the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) coded affluent areas as green, slightly less affluent parts as blue, “declining” areas as yellow, and risky areas as red—the Naturalization Act, and photographs of Rice’s ancestors. These components are cut into triangles and pieced more or less orderly except for the top half, where the system and logic break out into freestyle chaos, like a crazy-quilt. 

“Ghosts of Our Past” also references traditional crafts, using a reproduction of a photograph of two of Rice’s male relatives with unspecified “family documents” woven in a diamond pattern, such as you might find on a rug or tablecloth. The seated man, another 4th-great-grandfather, James Rice, is not hidden by the woven words, which can only be read as fragments: money, cotton, battle, freed, and more than a few racial slurs that are mostly redacted. An alternately-lit image of this piece on the artist’s website offers a slightly more readable version of the text, which the artist tells me is from a letter written by James’ son, Elijah, to the federal government “requesting reparations for his losses” due to the Civil War. 

In the same room but off in its own quiet corner, the piece “Family Values 1” consists of 219 paper butterflies arranged on the floor in a broad but contained circle. The noontime sun casts a warm, solemn light over them. The butterflies are made from copies of the 1810 US census which, according to the artist, listed 219 humans as her “family’s property.” Crouching on the floor, I see the names Venable and Watson repeated on the paper, line after line. All the other potentially identifying or differentiating information is either illegible, cut off, or had likely been omitted from the original documents in the first place. This piece is an admission, a recognition, of a large group of people whose legacy is bound up in this family lineage, despite their lives and labor being essentially erased from it.

 

Kim Rice, "Family Values 1," 2019, 1810 Census papers

[Image: Detail of “The Divide–New Orleans”]

The weight of this personal history functions as the support for the rest of Inheritance, in which these gutting ancestral relationships are less overt. The artwork hung throughout the second and third floors of the Peale takes on the long tail of redlining, racism, and whiteness. The redlining work, Rice says, was influenced by the story of her mother’s side of the family: Scandinavian immigrants who “came from nothing” and built their own success here in the United States—a specious but common narrative for white settlers.

Several of the pieces installed in the upper floors are of a massive scale, like the 14-panel piece “The Divide–New Orleans” which takes over two opposing walls of the museum’s great theater space. Each 10-by-4-foot panel is mostly black, woven tight with roofing paper, as well as HOLC maps of the city of New Orleans which form the shape of a monstrous river—meant to reference the Mississippi, around which the city was built. So much of the traditionally redlined areas of New Orleans are concentrated close to the river, while the scant blue and green areas are on safer, higher ground—a clear indication of who was devastated the most by the flooding and the levees breaking after Hurricane Katrina hit. (To quote Coates again, “as late as the mid-20th century, this bargain [of equal treatment] was not granted to black people, who repeatedly paid a higher price for citizenship and received less in return.”) Many redlined neighborhoods, including in Baltimore, remain practically as segregated as they were when the practice was legal, a fact that seems to come up in the places where uprisings occur every couple of years, while those with the most power and money don’t do anything to improve the lives of those who struggle the most. 

Roofing paper, Tyvek, and other construction materials are prominent throughout Rice’s work, particularly in the large-scale pieces. These materials create structural stability: attempting to weave plain fibrous paper and magazine pages at such a large scale without any sturdy backing just wouldn’t work. But they also carry symbolic potential, in that restrictive and unjust policies do not simply dissolve with a change in the law. 

Each shift in the material inspires different facets of understanding. For re-creations of Baltimore and Richmond HOLC maps, Rice uses thousands of small red, yellow, blue, green, and white zip ties, interlocking them in loops, creating something resembling a curtain or a net, but also referencing implements of restraint, such as the plastic cuffs cops use to detain people, often in large gatherings like protests. In a Cleveland HOLC map, Rice excised the redlined areas entirely, sewing a bright red trim around each neighborhood borderline to emphasize its omission, its visible invisibility.

 

Kim Rice, "Redlining Oklahoma City," 2017, magazines, HOLC maps
Kim Rice, The Safety Net–Richmond, 17,000 zip ties

Again and again, confronting these maps, weavings, and tapestries, I’m struck by the labor required by each one. The enormous “White Side,” an extension of the artist’s “Whiteness and Media” series, measures 11 x 19 1/2 feet (or a few inches narrower than Picasso’s Guernica). It utilizes magazine pages backed by Tyvek and hand-woven into an overwhelming field of glitching white faces overlapping and backing one another. Here, the Tyvek creates structural support, but the very nature of hand-weaving all of these white faces together, too—over, under, over, under—reinforces the relationships of power and kinship. Because of the privileges that whiteness bestows within a white supremacist state, white people easily remain invested in it rather than in ceding that position. As the scholar Christina Sharpe wrote in the essay “Lose Your Kin”: “Whiteness is a political project and it is also a logic, by which I mean it is a calculus, a way of sorting oneself and others into categories of those who must be protected and those who are, or soon will be, expendable.” That sorting does not have to be absolute, I think, and one of the first steps in undoing it, at the very least, requires vigilance of the ways these constructs have limited and harmed everybody. 

With all of the repetition and precision involved, Rice’s work offers a meditative way of seeing and making visible the problems of whiteness, which are well-hidden in the mainstream and arguably even more so in “progressive” spaces. This artwork skips the fraught emotionality of white people’s coming into consciousness about the constructs of race and the iterations of racism, and instead leads the viewer straight into an intellectual headspace. Here is a complex and interconnected set of problems, the work shows us, and here’s one way to see and understand them. 

That’s another strength in Rice’s work—it escapes the sticky white guilt that slows white people down from meaningfully doing any actual antiracist work, from doing what has been asked of us for years and years. Every protest against police brutality and racial injustice feels louder than the last, and every cycle of awakening for white people feels too late. Everything is dire and needed to course-correct four hundred years ago, or every day since then. The state-sanctioned murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and numerous other Black people presented a major crisis on top of a legacy of crises in a year utterly defined by crisis. A growing number of people are joining those who have long been demanding radical change, calling for abolishing the police, abolishing capitalism, and securing housing and healthcare for all. The tension is that the people who pull the levers, those with all the concentrated wealth and power, are still invested in the systems that do not serve the majority of people who live in this country. There is so much catching up to do. 

 

Kim Rice, "White Side," magazines and Tyvek

Images courtesy of the Peale Center. Header image: Kim Rice, "Family Values 2," 2019, 13 Colonies map, hand-cut last will and testament of William Venable

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