As a conceptual artist,
I'm constantly looking for creative ways
to spark challenging conversations.
I do this though painting, sculpture,
video and performance.
But regardless of the format,
two of my favorite materials
are history and dialogue.
In 2007, I created "Lotus,"
a seven-and-a-half-foot diameter,
600-pound glass depiction
of a lotus blossom.
In Buddhism, the lotus is a symbol
and for purity of mind and spirit.
But a closer look at this lotus
reveals each petal
to be the cross-section of a slave ship.
This iconic diagram was taken
from a British slaving manual
and later used by abolitionists to show
the atrocities of slavery.
In America, we don't like
to talk about slavery,
nor do we look at it as a global industry.
But by using this Buddhist symbol,
I hope to universalize and transcend
the history and trauma of black America
and encourage discussions
about our shared past.
To create "Lotus,"
we carved over 6,000 figures.
And this later led to a commission
by the City of New York
to create a 28-foot version in steel
as a permanent installation
at the Eagle Academy for Young Men,
a school for black and latino students,
the two groups most affected
by this history.
The same two groups are very affected
by a more recent phenomenon,
but let me digress.
I've been collecting
wooden African figures
from tourist shops and flea markets
around the world.
The authenticity and origin
of them is completely debatable,
but people believe these
to be imbued with power,
or even magic.
Only recently have I figured out
how to use this in my own work.
Since 2012, the world has witnessed
the killings of Trayvon Martin,
Michael Brown, Eric Garner,
Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice
and literally countless other
unarmed black citizens
at the hands of the police,
who frequently walk away
with no punishment at all.
In consideration of these victims
and the several times that even I,
a law-abiding, Ivy League professor,
have been targeted and harassed
at gunpoint by the police.
I created this body of work
simply entitled "BAM."
It was important to erase
the identity of each of these figures,
to make them all look the same
and easier to disregard.
To do this, I dip them in a thick,
before taking them to a shooting range
where I re-sculpted them using bullets.
And it was fun,
playing with big guns and
high-speed video cameras.
But my reverence for these figures
kept me from actually pulling the trigger,
somehow feeling as if I would
be shooting myself.
Finally, my cameraman, Raul,
fired the shots.
I then took the fragments of these
and created molds,
and cast them first in wax,
and finally in bronze
like the image you see here,
which bears the marks
of its violent creation
like battle wounds or scars.
When I showed this work recently in Miami,
a woman told me she felt
every gun shot to her soul.
But she also felt that these artworks
memorialized the victims of these killings
as well as other victims of
racial violence throughout US history.
But "Lotus" and "BAM" are larger
than just US history.
While showing in Berlin last year,
a philosophy student asked me
what prompted these recent killings.
I showed him a photo
of a lynching postcard
from the early 1900s
and reminded him that these killings
have been going on for over 500 years.
But it's only through questions like his
and more thoughtful dialogue
about history and race
can we evolve as individuals and society.
I hope my artwork creates a safe space
for this type of honest exchange
and an opportunity for people
to engage one another
in real and necessary conversation.