Spirits from the Past

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Spirits from the Past,
By Allison Hersh, © Savannah Morning News, 11/12/2000

Brooklyn-based artist Kim Mayhorn shines a bright spotlight into the dark recesses of American history in her multi-media installation, "A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day…," on display at the Beach Institute through Dec. 8.

Through a series of haunting scenes based on actual historic events, Mayhorn explores the violent, disturbing legacy of female lynching in America.
"Black women and girls are not often referred to or even acknowledged in historical accounts of lynching in the United States," she explains, "and I felt it was very necessary to open a discourse on this horrific atrocity done to my ancestors."

By creatively combining natural elements, garments, found objects, original text and audio, the exhibit invites the viewer to confront, comprehend and question the lynching of African-American girls and women in the 19th and 20th century. Mayhorn strategically arranges leaves, soil, branches, tree stumps, shells and other artifacts that guide the viewer on a historical and spiritual journey into U.S. history.

Branches hung with nooses are suspended from the ceiling. Mirrors encourage the viewer to reflect on the fate of the women whose stories Mayhorn has meticulously researched and ingeniously presented in the installation piece. A set of headphones plays a continuous audio soundtrack of running water and a poem, Honey by the Riverbank, which recounts the story of a black slave who, after being raped by her master, drowned her daughter to save her from the same fate.

Mayhorn first became aware of the history of female lynching several years ago when she attended a lecture in Harlem, where a blind teenager read a poem about Mary Turner, an African-American woman who was lynched in Valdosta, Ga. in 1918. "Mary Turner is the nucleus of this piece," Mayhorn explains.

Outraged when a lynch mob killed her husband, Turner was determined to find and expose her husband's killers. After being jailed for her efforts, Turner, who was pregnant at the time, was ripped from her jail cell by an angry mob, hung from a tree by her feet, doused with gasoline and burned. Angry mobsters slit open her abdomen with a pocket knife and killed her unborn child.

Other victims of female lynching included in Mayhorn's installation include Jennie Steers of Shreveport, La., who was charged with killing a 16 year-old white girl with a glass of poisoned lemonade and Mildrey Brown of Columbia, S.C., who was accused of poisoning a white infant based on circumstantial evidence.

For Mayhorn, the fate of these and other African-American women strikes close to home. "These are women who could have been your mother, could have been your sister, could have been your aunt," she says. "Living in this country, there are certain things that are in your bloodline. It's almost hereditary."

Originally from Houston, Mayhorn graduated from Howard University in 1991 before pursuing a career as a film and video editor in New York, working on a variety of television shows including 48 Hours, as well as a number of independent films. She has earned awards from the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and the Bronx Museum of the Arts and was recently featured in "Essence" magazine as one of "30 Women to Watch."

Mayhorn has also excelled as an independent filmmaker. Her short film, "Withering Barks," won second place in the experimental category at the 1997 Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame International Film/Video Competition.

This 31 year-old artist, filmmaker and editor first exhibited "A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day…" at HEREArt Gallery in New York City in 1998 and has taken the work to the African American Museum in Philadelphia, City Without Walls in Newark, N.J., and ZWICK Place in Denver.

Her work elicits a range of responses. Some people cry when they find themselves confronted with the haunting legacy of female lynching in America. Others are outraged. By placing a spool of rope on a tree stump at the end of the piece, Mayhorn invites participants to cut a piece of rope in honor of the women who have died by lynching and to engage, on a physical level, with the gruesome reality of female lynching.

The exhibit offers an important lesson in American history and serves as a sobering tribute to women killed in acts of harrowing violence.

"As a black woman, this is my way of giving a space where these women can be felt and seen," Mayhorn explains. "This is a legacy that honors and pays homage to their spirits."