Before coming to see his art exhibit, autoportrait, at east London’s Chisenhale Gallery, artist Luke Thompson wants you to know the context behind it.
Almost a year ago today, on July 6 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota. He joined a long line of black men that year who died at the hands of the American police. But what made this incident particularly unforgettable was the fact that it was livestreamed by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.
Reynolds, who was in the car with her young daughter, filmed the aftermath of the shooting, showing a blood-soaked Castile losing consciousness. It is remarkable footage, and already a cultural artefact: although clearly terrified and upset, Reynolds keeps her poise and repeatedly challenges the police officers on their actions. Her daughter, in the back of the car, tries to soothe her mother.
As with a lot of the most prominent incidents attached to the Black Lives Matter movement which picked up in the summer of 2016, it was this video-ed "proof" of the horrifying nature of the shooting that arguably helped the current civil rights movement raise awareness about the realities of police violence being committed against the black population. Reynolds herself has said that she doesn't believe that police officer Yanez would have been charged without the footage.
REACHING OUT TO DIAMOND
Thompson, like so many of us, was shocked when he first saw the footage last year, and after spending some time processing, decided to reach out to Reynolds to see if they could talk about working on an art project together. This culminated with what is currently on show at the Chisenhale: a beautiful, black and white silent portrait-film starring Reynolds, shot on 35mm. We meet there on a sunny summer's afternoon and I can sense the artist is wary of placing himself front and centre of the conversation about the incident.
Still, Thompson has form: the Walter Prize-winning New Zealander has been in London for over a year on a residency with the Chisenhale, and spent the first half of his time working on art relating to the stories of black women who had been killed by the state in the city. "I waited a long time for Black Lives Matter to exist before I knew that's what I was waiting for," he says. "The movement, which I consider myself a part of, is propelled by the most extreme format of state violence, but it is also a critique of a number of injustices and other institutions."
After going through her lawyers, Thompson was able to speak to Reynolds directly late last year. Lots of people had approached them, he says, but "I was the one that they responded to, I believe, because the pitch was different and the idea was different."
MAKING ART FROM TRAGEDY
Thompson and Reynolds finally met in February of 2017 to shoot the film and his memories of her are fond. "She's a person who has every good reason to not go on and yet she does go on, and she finds a way to do an impossible thing," he says, describing her as bubbly and fun, but obviously marked by the tragedy of her situation; an accidental activist. The shoot took place in her hometown over the course of a week. He prepped for the meeting by visiting a therapist to learn more about PTSD.
"She has this beautiful memorial tattoo. One side of her arm is her daughter and on the other side is Philando. We were talking about her life and at one point she wanted to mention Phil," he says. "She couldn't quite say his name in that moment so she pointed to her arm... What I know is that she's mourning, breathing and fighting."
The film itself shows her all at once as polished and beautiful, 27-years-young, defiant, intelligent, solemn, singing; head bent down looking as though she is in prayer, hair braided into neat cornrows. At first look it is the antithesis to the original, raw video that pushed her into the public eye, but in reality it has some similarities. Her defiance of spirit still spills out through the screen. Thompson and Reynolds spent a long time discussing how she was going to be presented and, with her lawyers, how they could work on something that wouldn't compromise her legal case.
"She loved to perform and she had a real digital life. She'd make films for friends and for family and for her daughter. After [the shooting] that was not something she could do anymore due to legal reasons... So, I as an artist, coming from a different country and a different position I could say: 'What kind of film can I make that will allow Diamond to still do what she finds useful, but not jeopardise these greater legal conversations?'"
Her silence then, in this context, is empowering. Reynolds is able to perform for the camera in the way she always has done, as a therapeutic exercise. Thompson says that video they collaborated on uses "art's best possible qualities" to provide something that more traditional media formats couldn't. It was very much a joint effort, with Reynolds having ultimate control over her image.
THE ACQUITTAL OF POLICE OFFICER YANEZ
Just two weeks ago, as Thompson was preparing to open the exhibition, the police officer who shot Castile was acquitted of all charges, including manslaughter. As the trial was over, another video was released showing Reynolds and her daughter in the back of the squad car shortly after the shooting.
"Mom, please stop cussing and screaming 'cause I don't want you to get shooted," her daughter cries as Reynolds struggles with the handcuffs cruelly placed on her wrists.
This new video is almost as traumatising as the first, and Thompson is angry about the way it was released, and devastated for Reynolds and her supporters. "I'm still in that position of not being sure whether or not to actually watch it, because of the kind of cycle of degradation these videos go through," he says. "I'm heartbroken and I'm full of rage about the acquittal."
Thompson refers me back to a beautifully eloquent statement Reynolds released after the verdict: "I am incredibly disappointed with the jury’s verdict (...) It is a sad state of affairs when this type of criminal conduct is condoned simply because Yanez is a policeman. God help America."
The fight for Diamond Reynolds is clearly only just beginning, but this collaboration seems it could offer some solace both to her and the public at large. It shows you can keep living, breathing and singing even after the most immense of avoidable tragedies, and Reynolds is reportedly planning to visit the installation herself in August.
autoportrait is on display until 27 August 2017
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