Paul Rucker isn’t intentionally provocative. His art tells American stories. It just so happens that those stories are provocative, wretched and criminal. At the opening last week of his installation “Rewind” at the Baltimore Museum of Art, there are rows of tall and imposing mannequins donning Ku Klux Klan robes. One holds a baby wearing a tiny Klan robe. There are even robes made of kente cloth. It’s alternately jarring and fascinating.
Rucker received an esteemed Baker Artist Award this year. A self-taught visual artist and classical musician—a cellist—and composer, he combines media, integrating visual art with sound from his original compositions. He has collected artifacts that tell stories of American’s painful past. A Confederate $100 bill with a picture of enslaved Africans toiling away on the back, a picture of a KKK event where Coca-Cola was the sponsor, the 1860 census, historic postcards depicting lynchings, and a copy of a book entitled White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, among other items.
“This show is not about black America; it’s about America,” Rucker says as a speaker box whistles in the background. A part of his installation, the box whistles every 67 minutes—the amount of time it took the jury to acquit Emmett Till’s killers.
April 29, 1992, was Rucker’s 24th birthday, the same day the Los Angeles riots began. Since that day, he has been following—and recording with excruciating detail—stories of police abuse and the outcomes and drawing parallels with lynchings.
“Mike Brown’s body was left in the street for three or four hours. That was not an accident; it was a show of force. Lynchings were similar community gatherings; thousands of people came out,” says Rucker, who lives in Bolton Hill in Baltimore, a few blocks from where Freddie Gray was killed.
His work also focuses on incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, slavery and racial disparities. The theme of “Rewind” is connecting the past to the present and asking how we got here. The installation includes a publication entitled Rewind, which details fascinating and horrific stories of racial brutality from the Middle Passage; the multimillion-dollar cotton industry (in 1860, cotton sales alone generated $200 million—$5 billion today); convict leasing; the inspiration for the Ku Klux Klan; and police-brutality cases like Eric Garner and Sean Bell. It even features runaway-slave classified ads.
Rucker, a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Artist-in-Residence and Research fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art and now in residence at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore, isn’t objective about his art. He’s well-aware of his personal connection to it as a black male in a space where he would be guilty until proved innocent.
“With every not-guilty verdict, the American community is beaten down in terms of not having any hope for justice,” Rucker says about the latest spate of police-brutality cases.
His work is contemporary, universal and less pessimistic than it is realistic about truth and justice. He brings audiences on a historic ride full circle to today.