By Susan Froyd, © Westword, 03/11/1999
You're walking in the damp, warm woods, through patches of sunlight melting into shadows, when you see something ghostly rustling there among the leaves. It's the product of an unspeakable atrocity--a lynching. But when you realize that the lifeless form swinging there was once a woman, you're horrified all over again. Like artist Kim Mayhorn, you've probably always associated that unconscionable piece of American history with men - it's something white men did (and still do) to black men.
As it turns out, you're not in the woods at all. Instead, you're in the midst of Mayhorn's traveling installation, A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day..., a grim reminder that women and children have endured lynchings through history as well. The exhibit opens Friday in Denver in recognition of International Women's History Month, with a ritual/celebration enhanced by African drums and poetry.
A spooky tangle of leaves, branches and water intermingled with macabre stories uncovered by research, the installation is an infinitely serious place in which to mull over serious issues about race, gender and violence - yet at the same time, it manages to affirm life by liberating hidden stories we perhaps haven't heard before. "As you walk on the leaves and touch things, you get a sense of the spirit of the women - of the idea that they won't be silenced anymore," Mayhorn explains. "I feel like I've tapped into an energy not tapped into before, that their voices are speaking through me. To me, these women are walking with me."
Primarily a filmmaker, Mayhorn was inspired by a reference to the lynching of black women made in a poem she heard at a conference. "I was in a state of disbelief - I'd never heard of such a thing before," she says. "I thought only black men had been lynched." The resulting idea for A Woman Was Lynched, an organic, interactive environment, represented a whole new, three-dimensional direction for her. "The main challenge was not to use video," Mayhorn says of the work, which in spite of its use of numerous media remains free of projected imagery. "Now I'm learning more about the lingo of the art world."
It was important to Mayhorn to avoid creating an untouchable museum piece. Though carefully documented, the women's stories aren't kept behind glass in this exhibit. You can sit on a log or wander through. "When you first walk in, it's telling the story about a black woman who drowned her daughter as the result of having been raped," Mayhorn relates. "She didn't want her daughter to grow up and live through the same hardships she'd been through." The viewer, who enters after the fact, is immediately lulled by the sound of water. "You become involved with the environment, getting a sense of what it means to kill your own," Mayhorn continues. Then you move through stories of the lynched women illustrated with nooses and shreds of clothing in tree branches and punctuated by descriptions of how and why they were lynched. Random clay feet signify their spirits; cowry shells, an American flag and references to Africa denote the series of historical conditions that led to lynchings in the first place.
"The main one is about a woman named Mary Turner," Mayhorn says. "She's the energy that I thrive off of in the piece." Turner's story, one you learn as your walk in the woods draws to a close, is particularly gruesome--lynched while pregnant, she was slit open and her baby crushed with a shoe before she was set on fire. "What white culture was doing to black culture at that time was spectatorship," Mayhorn discloses. "It was a case of 'Let's go out and find a black person and lynch them.'" The exhibit closes with a burial site and a listing of cold, hard statistics.
Mayhorn is unapologetic about her graphic portrayals, which have elicited strong responses--tears, praise and enthusiastic thank-you's--from a wide and varied audience. "It makes me pause to know that I'm truly a vessel for unleashing these stories of women that aren't told," she says. "It's been self-rewarding to know the piece I made touched people in some way. If you walk out of the space different than when you came in - that's what I'm trying to accomplish."
But she also hopes to educate. "I'm only taking a portion of a vast amount of experiences blacks have had in America," Mayhorn adds. "I look at how our culture was affected as the result of women being lynched and raped - how it's had an effect on our lineage and how women as a culture have passed that on from generation to generation to generation."