In 2002, the Chicago Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance mandated that corporations wishing to do business with the city of Chicago file a report detailing any involvement with the enslavement of Africans in America. Bob Brown, long-time Chicago activist and Pan-African Roots member, noticed that certain corporations were filing false or misleading reports. After four years of research on hundreds of companies, Brown brought a massive lawsuit to the Circuit Court of Cook County. The court ruled that Brown was not the right party to bring this suit to court—for a case like this to be considered, it would have to be filed by the Corporation Counsel. Dismissed on a technicality, Brown’s research was relegated to a warehouse to collect dust alongside old court records.
Recently rediscovered, Brown’s case is the inspiration for a series of photographic compositions by Larry Redmond currently on display at Uri-Eichen Gallery in Pilsen. Titled “The Ghosts of Slavery in Corporate Chicago,” Redmond’s work is the first show in “40 Acres and a Mule,” a summer-long series at Uri-Eichen attempting to create a dialogue about the possibility of reparations for slavery in America.
The series was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” The widely-read article published in The Atlantic last June traced the struggles of Clyde Ross and other black Chicagoans to obtain housing and employment in the midst of racist social and political practices. Methodically researched, the piece paints a clear picture of economic exploitation of black people in America. After reading the article, Kathy Steichen, co-founder and board president of Uri-Eichen, decided to use the gallery’s community and space to foster a dialogue about reparations.
At the opening of the first show in Uri-Eichen’s “40 Acres and a Mule” series, the small gallery was filled to capacity. Larry Redmond spoke at the reception, along with Kamm Howard. Howard, co-chair of the Chicago chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), spearheaded the research and compilation of the excerpts from Bob Brown’s case. When Steichen contacted Redmond, a fellow Uri-Eichen board member, about her vision for the series, Redmond reached out to Howard.
“Brother Larry contacted me a couple months ago and told me that the art gallery wanted to do something around enslavement—something about reparations—and asked me what do I think,” Howard explained, introducing the story behind Redmond’s artwork to the crowded gallery. “So I said, well, right now we’re working on a mobilization around corporations here in Chicago and he said, well, that’d be a great place to start.”
“We had to spend hours and hours and hours sifting through the lawsuit—speed-reading, et cetera—trying to get what we did. And that’s what you have behind me.” Howard gestured towards Redmond’s photographs, below which excerpts from Brown’s research detailed the various corporations’ complicity in slavery.
“Just look at these corporations, just these key corporations that are represented here and the amount of capital that they produced and still produce today—all of these corporations are million dollar corporations,” Howard said. “All that initial capital was built on stolen labor—built on crime.”
Redmond’s artwork emphasizes the inseparable nature of the history of slavery and the structure of the modern American economy—of black bodies and corporate capital. The digital collages combine images of physical locations associated with the accused corporations with pictures of the artist’s naked body. Redmond’s contorted and exposed body, mostly obscured in darkness, becomes a part of the towering headquarters of the Tribune or the Bank of America. The various overlaid parts—images of different angles of the buildings and different poses of the artist’s body—create a cacophonous but carefully constructed whole.
“It was a concept I’d been toying with for a while,” he continued, referring to the distinctive digital collage style. “But I hadn’t really found my voice within it, if you know what I’m saying. But I was looking to combine these pictures with naked black bodies and it just seemed right to see right through them and see the corporations—like you’re seeing the corporation through the slave. Everything’s obscured, you can’t quite see what you want to see.”
“It’s either really pretentious or really deep, depending on how you look at it,” joked Luanne Redmond, Larry’s wife.
“Really deep. Definitely really deep.” Larry laughed and nodded. He is modest about his work, despite the gravitas of its mission. The compositions aim to use images of the present to reframe the history of slavery as a foundational facet of the structure of the American economy, rather than some moral transgression that is best forgotten. As patrons milled about the gallery, Redmond joked with a group about the way slavery is frequently discussed.
“Before 1865, mistakes were made! Let’s let bygones be bygones. It was a typo!” Redmond riffed, mocking a common attitude towards the history of emancipation and recovery.
“We see Africans here in America are really experiencing a cultural breakdown,” Howard added. “We consider that cultural breakdown as a consequence of centuries and centuries of injury, while those who benefited from these crimes are becoming more and more prosperous. And there’s something wrong with that. There’s something really wrong with that.”
N’COBRA proposes that there is a solution to this heinous wrong. They propose that money from corporate and governmental organizations that profited from slavery could be funneled into programs, policies, and projects for the uplift of the ancestors of enslaved Americans.
After the presentations by Howard and Redmond, the audience milled about and made conversation. Ruth Needleman, another board member of Uri-Eichen, spoke with Redmond about the photography she will be presenting as part of the show’s next installment.
As the crowd at the opening reception dwindled, Steichen would occasionally step outside and shout invitations at the passing pedestrians on their way home from Second Friday shows at the other art galleries on Halsted. Needleman sat down on a bench with Redmond.
“It’s not a nice world out there,” said Needleman.
Redmond shook his head and smiled. “No, it is not. But you do what you can.”