Joe Bigley wants everyone to feel oppressed.
At least while they are experiencing his art installation, “Structured as Such: Architecture of Oppression,” opening Friday at Liberty Arts, 923 Franklin St. in Durham, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m.
“The whole show is cramped,” said Bigley. “It is borderline claustrophobic, but that is the intention.”
The installation includes a solitary confinement cell, an office cubicle, voting booths, a low-income housing bedroom and rows of ship bunks.
The seed for this show sprouted when Bigley read “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn.
“It gives the history of this country from the perspective of the lower class,” said Bigley, who was deeply affected by the book’s stories of the transatlantic voyages of ships crammed with slaves.
“These people were given a five foot by a foot and a half bunk for a three month voyage,” he said. “These were stacked on top of each other and people often couldn’t roll over. Early on, 40 percent of the people were lost, meaning 40 percent of the profits were lost,” Bigley said.
Conditions improved. “Not for humanitarian reasons but to maximize profits,” Bigley said. “And that blew me away, embodying how dehumanized these people were. I thought it would be powerful for people to see this cramped space in abundance.”
When the viewing stops, Bigley hopes the talking will begin.
“I think that important discourse about race relations has not been in the national spotlight like it could be. I want to get people thinking about race relations and how it is not a coincidence that some people are poor and some are affluent,” Bigley said. “I think it is structured that way.”
The prison cell symbolizes the fact that minorities in prison far outnumber whites. The office cubicle conjures up the reality that unemployment rates in many areas are much higher for minorities.
The bedroom is about 9 by 11 feet, which may not seem so small but reflecting reality, Bigley has filled it with bunks so that, like the ship quarters, it feels unbearable.
The voting booths are intended to spark conversations about the consequences that will occur if voting photo identification laws are enacted. Older, disabled, minority, very young, and low-income voters are less likely to have government-issued identification and thus, if passed, the laws could marginalize them even more.
Bigley, who grew up in Chapel Hill and lives in Boone, uses recycled material in his work whenever possible. The show’s structures are all built of reclaimed pallet wood
“Also, a lot of these oppressive measures come from a capitalist society, at least that’s the direction of the show,” he said. “Using this wood was appropriate since it was used to ship commodities or goods around the nation or world.”
The show at Liberty Arts runs through April 6.
“It is telling that Liberty Arts is even willing to house the show because the work tends to be politically charged and can be challenging for the institution and the viewer,” said Bigley, who in 2011 received an emerging artist grant from the Durham Arts Council. It was to fund another compelling project, “Transversing a Foreign Border Domestically,” that engaged many local communities throughout the Eastern part of the U.S.
Carter Cue joined the Liberty Arts board last fall and offered to work with Bigley setting up exhibit-related events.
“I thought his ideas were great considering that the primary mission of Liberty Arts is to look at the collaborative practice and how it reflects the dynamisms of Durham,” Cue said. “I was telling Joe, the theme of the show actually is really a narrative of the various things that have taken place in Durham and throughout the state. I saw this as a grand experiment to see how art could engage people in the community.”Collaborations
Cue has organized a talk, “Food Sustainability and Food Oppression Discussion,” that will take place at 2 p.m. March 30 at Labour Love Gallery, 807 E. Main St., across from Liberty Arts. Bernard Obie, who runs Abanitu Organics and Chef Njathi Kabui, who promotes food sustainability through his organization Organics and Sound, will speak.
“Eating food is a political act,” said Kabui, who grew up in Kenya on a farm where his family grew 90 percent of their food. “For example, if I am eating organic food, I am supporting the organic food industry. Likewise, if I eat at a fast food restaurant, I am supporting an industry that does not support workers.”
Cue also worked with Lamont Lilly, a local writer and activist, to mount a Spike Lee film festival. “It dawned on me that Lee’s films seemed to fit in perfectly with some of the issues of Joe’s exhibition,” Cue said. Lee’s films will be shown at Liberty Arts at 5:30 p.m. March 9, 16, 23, 30, and April 6.
The reception during Third Friday Durham will feature storyteller Carolyn Evans, who dramatizes the lives of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Robert Trowers and the NCCU Brass Ensemble will play as will steel drum player, Wilton DuBois.