I’d gone to Montreal for a conference and, because I fell in love with the city, decided to stay a few more days to explore it. I was with my travel companion, a woman who’s working on a start-up site about art, and she asked me to tag along with her to check out Montreal’s contemporary art scene.
At our second stop, a very nice attendant made small talk and asked about our art-hopping plans. Maybe I looked as bored as I was because the attendant asked if I was enjoying the trek. “I like the pretty colors, but ... ,” I said. I’m not that shallow, I swear. I just have a preference for art that is bold and in my face.
“What’s next?” the attendant asked. My companion told her we were headed to “Come and See” by British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman at DHC/ART.
She looked alarmed. “I haven’t seen it, but ‘depressing’ was how a friend described it. Wanna see?” She punched a few strokes on her computer keyboard and invited us to take a look at her screen.
There were various images of Ronald McDonald being crucified. It was one scene in an extraordinarily detailed display of miniatures that looked like something out of the zombie scenes in World War Z. I clicked the “about” link that explained the exhibit. The leading themes of the brothers’ work: “morality, religion, sex, death and philosophy.” Apparently they have a thing for critiquing the “-isms”: capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, extremism, racism, etc. Cool. This sounded more my speed.
At the exhibit, a very nice man greeted us cheerfully at the entrance. He pointed down a hall, indicating that we should begin there. At the top of a short set of stairs was a summary of what I read on the website. I skimmed through it quickly, but my partner in crime must have read faster because she moved on first. I don’t know if I heard her gasp first or caught her flinching in my peripheral vision.
“What?” I asked, genuinely concerned since, like me, she’s not prone to dramatic reactions.
“Oh, hell no,” I said. I stepped back to the very edge of the stairs. I should be more careful about what I ask for.
Across the room was a 6-foot Klansman in full regalia – the first of many. He was staring into one of the exhibits that featured a crucified Ronald McDonald being fed a Big Mac on a stick. Now, logically, I knew this was a mannequin. I had not run into a real, live Klansman perusing art in the middle of the day in the creative center of Quebec. But all my mind could process was danger and fear. It was not logical.
The attendant had told us the exhibit was disturbing because of a crucified clown. But no one thought to tell two black women about the Klansman? Would you send two Jewish women to an exhibit that had Nazi soldiers and not mention that? Maybe the attendant didn’t know or knew but didn’t get it. (Later, I researched reviews of the exhibit, which has never been shown in the States. All of the critics – none of them black – glossed right over the Klansmen mannequins.)
The Klansman seemed to have Mona Lisa eyes – wherever I moved, his gaze seemed to follow me. It had this looming presence that filled the room. Even when I tried to avoid looking at it by studying other artwork, all I could think about was it. My mind was playing tricks on me.
Throughout the exhibit, other Klansmen mannequins were standing around. At some point, I noticed that they were all wearing LGBT rainbow socks with Birkenstocks and each one had a happy-face decal on its gown. An attendant caught me staring at the socks and explained that it was a juxtaposition of extremist views. Ku Klux Klan equals hate and violence; hippies equal love and peace. Get it?
I did, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I stayed as far away from them as possible because they freaked me out. I was thinking of all the fear they brought up in me, a person who has never been called the n-word or had to drink from a “Coloreds Only” fountain or live through de facto segregation and who finally chose to vote for the first time nearly a decade after I could because I took for granted that I could.
And I thought about the black people who were bold enough to register to vote and, because of that, woke up in the middle of the night with deranged, hooded men in bedsheets burning crosses in their yards. I thought of the people who were terrorized and lynched with no one to complain to because the terrorists in the yard were the officials who were causing the problem. I thought about death and tragedy and how black Americans must have a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the end of the exhibit – in an adjacent building – I turned into a room and freaked all the way out. There were 20 white-hooded mannequins. As I took them all in, it was as though a wall went up in front of me. Some part of my brain responsible for self-preservation got me the hell out of there and back into the lobby.
The attendant looked alarmed. Apparently I was the first person to have this reaction. I guess they don’t get a lot of black Americans here, because I couldn’t imagine any black American not responding this way.
He started explaining the history of the KKK to me, as if I, a black American – with a daddy from Mississippi and a granddaddy who left Georgia at 16 with nothing because he was tired and scared of white folks – hadn’t heard the stories all my life. I cut him off, explaining in so many words that the KKK meant black people died. Oh, and the museum should put up a “trigger warning” so black people, particularly Americans, don’t freak out in here.
He nodded and said he got it. But he didn’t. When I asked where the ladies’ room was, he pointed back into the room with all those hooded mannequins and said it was on the other side. I told him I’d hold it instead.
(Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” and the upcoming “Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love.” Follow her on Twitter.)