It is not every day that a genuine Ku Klux Klan robe goes on exhibit for all to see. But, at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena, artist V.L. Cox brings it on: A very old Klan robe, which has the name of its one-time wearer stitched in the back. And an antique bank in which an arm feeds a cracker into a black man’s open mouth. Jesus on the cross serving as the target for a carnival high striker.
Those and the other provocative works in the exhibition “Break Glass: A Conversation to End Hate” went on view Sunday, Sept. 29, in conjunction with that day’s dedication of the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Court Square Park. It was a day that acknowledged our state’s terrible history of racism and lynching and the urgent need to come together to stanch the ugly racist flow that has surfaced in the past several years.
Cox’s “End Hate” project has been installed in galleries in Virginia, New York, Alabama and in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is an organic exhibition, growing over time. At the Delta Cultural Center, several new works stand out: The aforementioned “Cracker Crumbs,” in which Cox has placed the kinetic bank atop a gumball machine. A lever moves the cracker to the mouth and makes the eyes move. The “Cracker” reference is obvious: Cox is not out to layer her art in personal or esoteric symbolism, but to provoke conversation about the history of abuse of African Americans.
“Dark Horse” is another fine new work, an antique wooden horse that, like the Trojan Horse, spills a dangerous army from its interior: Black crows. The horse, beneath its original fabric, was covered in pages from a 1942 Hungarian newspaper reporting on another war, World War II.
Cox also includes commentary on the 2016 presidential election with the piece “Fox in a Ballot Box.” An orange-haired taxidermied fox emerges from a 19th-century ballot box, a torn fragment of the American flag in its mouth. Its meaning is obvious; its construction clever.
One item that Cox does not display in every exhibition but which has found its way here is “Cease,” an assault-style weapon made up of human vertebra, shoulder blades and leg and finger bones. She built “Cease” in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, in which 49 people — mostly Hispanic — were mowed down.
Cox believes stains on the Klan robe, which she bought from an antique dealer in another state, are blood, and that the robe likely dates to the Red Summer of 1919, when fighting between blacks and whites erupted all over the country. She exhibits it with rope and a RIT dye sign that advertises “Color Remover.”
“I didn’t know how it was going to be received in the Delta,” Cox said of the show. “I had the same feeling when I took the doors to D.C.” She was referring to the first incarnation of “End Hate,” large wooden bearing the words “Whites Only,” “Colored Only,” “LGBT Only,” “Immigrant Only,” “Homeless Only,” and one chained shut: “Human Beings.” Their first installation was on the steps of the state Capitol; they were installed in 2015 and 2017 at the Lincoln Memorial. At both places, Cox fielded questions both curious and adversarial.
Cox said the show is surely more painful for African-American viewers than others, but that “it has been overwhelmingly embraced. … At the opening, one of the guys that works there at the DCC said, ‘I’m an old boy from Mississippi, but I got to tell you, I love this.’ ” She said she was also approached by educators “wanting to use [the show] for teacher curriculum. That is something I wanted to work into anyway.”
The exhibition runs through the year at the Delta Cultural Center, at 141 Cherry St. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m.