Art Mixed With the KKK Leaves a Bad Aftertaste

She Matters: A Montreal exhibit about extremism evoked some unexpected and disturbing emotions.

“Come and See” exhibit at DHC/ART in Montreal
“Come and See” exhibit at DHC/ART in Montreal Demetria Lucas

I’d gone to Montreal for a conference and, because I fell in love with the city, decided to stay a few more days to explore it. I was with my travel companion, a woman who’s working on a start-up site about art, and she asked me to tag along with her to check out Montreal’s contemporary art scene.

At our second stop, a very nice attendant made small talk and asked about our art-hopping plans. Maybe I looked as bored as I was because the attendant asked if I was enjoying the trek. “I like the pretty colors, but … ,” I said. I’m not that shallow, I swear. I just have a preference for art that is bold and in my face.

“What’s next?” the attendant asked. My companion told her we were headed to “Come and See” by British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman at DHC/ART.  

She looked alarmed. “I haven’t seen it, but ‘depressing’ was how a friend described it. Wanna see?” She punched a few strokes on her computer keyboard and invited us to take a look at her screen.  

There were various images of Ronald McDonald being crucified. It was one scene in an extraordinarily detailed display of miniatures that looked like something out of the zombie scenes in World War Z. I clicked the “about” link that explained the exhibit. The leading themes of the brothers’ work: “morality, religion, sex, death and philosophy.” Apparently they have a thing for critiquing the “-isms”: capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, extremism, racism, etc. Cool. This sounded more my speed.

At the exhibit, a very nice man greeted us cheerfully at the entrance. He pointed down a hall, indicating that we should begin there. At the top of a short set of stairs was a summary of what I read on the website. I skimmed through it quickly, but my partner in crime must have read faster because she moved on first. I don’t know if I heard her gasp first or caught her flinching in my peripheral vision.

“What?” I asked, genuinely concerned since, like me, she’s not prone to dramatic reactions.

“Oh, hell no,” I said. I stepped back to the very edge of the stairs. I should be more careful about what I ask for.

Across the room was a 6-foot Klansman in full regalia—the first of many. He was staring into one of the exhibits that featured a crucified Ronald McDonald being fed a Big Mac on a stick. Now, logically, I knew this was a mannequin. I had not run into a real, live Klansman perusing art in the middle of the day in the creative center of Quebec. But all my mind could process was danger and fear. It was not logical.

The attendant had told us the exhibit was disturbing because of a crucified clown. But no one thought to tell two black women about the Klansman? Would you send two Jewish women to an exhibit that had Nazi soldiers and not mention that? Maybe the attendant didn’t know or knew but didn’t get it. (Later, I researched reviews of the exhibit, which has never been shown in the States. All of the critics—none of them black—glossed right over the Klansmen mannequins.)