The Underground Museum, ten minutes from campus by car, is easy to whiz past without noticing. Even by foot, walking on Washington Blvd. in Arlington Heights, you might not suspect something special could be inside this building. Its low-key features are the purposeful design of the late Noah Davis, who founded the museum in 2015 (the year he died at age 32 from a rare cancer) with the aim of bringing museum quality work to an under-served community.
The Underground Museum's current exhibition, "Non-Fiction," curated by Davis before he passed away, presents a collection of political art with the specific theme of African American racial persecution in American history. Its title alerts people that what is being presented is not fiction but reality and history.
An interesting part of this exhibition is that no background information exists beside each work. The labels only tell you the artist's name and the title of the work. Davis wants to reform the way viewers approach the art. He believed viewers have their own relationship to art on the walls of his space, and that they alone can decide on the meaning of the works. He succeeded. The USC Visions & Voices expedition on February 4 was my first time in my life I saw a visitor debating a museum docent about the meaning of art. An African American lady had her own interpretation of the meaning behind the picture of three pendants embedded with images of African American women.
My favorite work was Robert Grober's 1989 "Hanging Man/Sleeping Man." It is a portrait of the wife of a lynching victim. The agony that comes from her eyes struck me deeply. She is not weeping and she is not angry, but such restrained emotion, or the emotionless expression on her face, actually delivered a stronger impact of hopelessness.
The unusual part of this work is the use of the wallpaper behind it. On the wallpaper is a pattern of two images. The first one is of an African American man, the wife's husband, being lynched. The second one is a white man sleeping on his bed. The lack of the white man's inner thoughts leaves plenty of room for interpretations of this work. The docent gave us two, proposing that the white man has a nightmare as he thinks about the lynching. He feels restless. My heart was punched when I heard the second interpretation that the white man is sleeping well and happily due to the black man's death.
This again proved Davis's belief that viewers derive meaning from their own knowledge and experience. Growing up in China, I learned about slavery in American history, and I understood the racial conflicts in America. However, I just never thought a person would be happy for someone's death merely because of race. Although I have studied in the United States for four years, I still rarely confront the darkness of racial persecution. This lack of personal experience meant I never thought about such horrifying interpretations as I heard from the docent.
To the left of the Grober's work, where the victim's wife looked on, is Kara Walker's "The Means to an End…. A Shadow Drama in Five Acts." It depicts a black woman helping her daughter flee from slavery. However, her daughter is caught by the slave owner and strangled to death. It seems that the wife in Grober's work (across the room) is witnessing this tragedy. The curatorial oppositional positioning of these works gives another layer of meaning to both, and tells us something about the curator.
Every corner of the Underground Museum is submersed in a gloomy sadness related to racial conflicts in American history. For example, the restroom is marked by the words "WHITE ONLY," discomforting visitors and challenging their thinking.
At the end of museum tour – which lasts about 40 minutes – visitors are led to a beautiful outside garden, called the Purple Garden, loaded with vivid flowers and landscapes. As the museum website claims, "We honor our ancestors and offer hope in The Purple Garden."
This botanical lightness at the end of museum's interior darkness signifies Davis' wish for America's future racial relationship. It symbolizes hope. Though some on our tour expressed that it looked like America's past and racially fraught history was still underground, obscured by the niceties of a well-tended garden above and an almost- invisibility from the street.
What is your interpretation? Go and see this Underground Museum for a real – as in non-fictional — journey and provocation.
Location: 3508 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90018
Open Time: Every day except Monday and Tuesday from 12-7 PM