ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — When she looked upon the masks and drawings, Bridget Cooks saw mourning and grief in all its authenticity and rawness.
She described those things when she penned her 2016 essay The Black Index, which explored the works of artists who didn’t seek to reconcile their pain but to explore it.
And her writing and the work she studied was, among other things, about mourning.
“I have along with millions of other people been really disturbed with what I call the normality of Black death,” said Cooks, a UC Irvine professor who teaches art history and African American studies. “It really hit me because at one point I was no longer able to remember the names of everyone who died.”
The Black Lives Matter protests of the past summer sprung up across the nation and amplified the sorrow and anger over the deaths of Black men and women by police. Some, like Sandra Bland, died under suspicious but unclear circumstances. Others like Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd were captured on camera. Al Jazeera published a project about the killings called Know their Names: Black People Killed in the US by Police.
The Black Index went broader, not just mourning police violence but all Black death.
She saw the imaginitive portrayals of women in Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s paintings, inspired by Black women who have been murdered and disappeared.
In Alicia Henry’s creations, Cooks found a lesser-known arrival to the art scene whose medium of choice has been leather buried in the ground or twisted and worked into various textures for a whole family of masks.
In these works, Cooks saw a community, a range of faces and personalities with disparate ambitions and life circumstances all collected together. And through her essay and conversations, more art was born. Through the conversation and mutual feelings of mourning, another idea emerged: an art exhibition of the same name. The idea began in 2018 and launched at UCI January 14.
The show is located at the Contemporary Arts Center Gallery but is open to the public virtually. Cooks hasn’t even seen it yet.
The artists who Cooks has come to know offered to create new works for the show following the same theme.
Noted artist and 2018 MacArthur Genius grant fellow Titus Kaphar has been known for chalk outlines on black asphalt paper.
“For him it’s a way to show us what it’s like to be incarcerated in the criminal justice system. You lose your identity,” Cooks said.
His etchings for The Black Index art exhibition is a collaboration with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts called Redaction.
Hinkle drew 100 new pieces just for the show, which are hung in the gallery at the university in the shape of women’s breasts.
Dennis Delgado’s series studies the pitfalls of facial recognition software and its potential for incorrectly picking out Black people.
Cooks also saw a sense of community in the works of Whitfield Lovell, a series of portraits paired with playing cards.
Artist Lava Thomas created a series of mugshot portraits. The series is consistent in its portrayal of the Black experience of America, honing in on the interminable nature of discrimination brought to life by these artists.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that The Black Index art exhibition contained paintings. Bridget Cooks is the lone curator, and Dennis Delgado's series was incorrectly identified. (January 19, 2021)