Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we often hear everyone from news anchors to pundits to our neighbors repeat a popular refrain: “This is the most divided our country as ever been.”
But one art exhibition in Nashville takes a hard look at the divisions that our government drew in the past. Red Line by Nashville native Omari Booker, now on view at Channel to Channel in Wedgewood-Houston, calls our attention to the enduring legacy of systemic racism, the ripples of which we still see today.
Redlining — the practice of denying mortgages and loans to people based on where they live — began in an official capacity in 1934, when the federal government created “residential security maps” that divided cities into areas based on their financial investment risk. “Type D” areas were deemed the most risky for supportive programs instituted by the Federal Housing Authority to incentivize home ownership, giving banks and insurers the green light to deny support to people living in and moving to these neighborhoods. This quickly extended to everything from supermarkets to education, deepening the lines of division between blacks and whites in every urban center in the country.
“Gentrification doesn’t really happen without redlining,” says Booker, “without that separation in the first place.”
Booker is the curator of Woodcuts Gallery & Framing on Jefferson Street, a 30-year-old institution that has made art accessible to Nashvillians of every budget and brought internationally acclaimed artists to the city — particularly black artists. This job wasn’t Booker’s first connection with North Nashville. As a child, he spent summers in Hadley Park — you can see a gorgeous mural of him and his sister as children on the Charlotte Avenue stretch of murals called Off the Wall — and he studied art at TSU. Booker was instrumental in starting the Jefferson Street Art Crawl, which is now in its fourth year, and he is included in the Frist Art Museum’s stunning exhibition Murals of North Nashville Now, which is located in the Conte Community Arts Gallery through January. (Admission to the Conte Community Arts Gallery is free of charge.)
Booker’s eight oil paintings are hung on two walls of the gallery. All revolve around the shape of a circle, which is the same size in every painting, and in every painting, it is encircled by dark red razor wire. The titular piece in the exhibition is also the largest. A brown circle is outlined with several layers of the razor wire, positioned in the center of a field of peachy pink. Booker’s brush strokes are large and expressive, the flesh-tone colors imbued with yellow. Much like the maps that the government drew to segregate blacks and whites in the 1930s, Booker’s painting shows us the hard barrier between races that was reinforced.
His piece “Do You Play Basketball?” uses the same circular design and colors, but the brown center has become a basketball, the razor wire bent to show its contours, drawing attention to the limited options available to children in black and brown communities. In another piece, Booker has painted the Wendy’s mascot. By incorporating the instantly recognizable image of the fast-food chain, Booker draws attention to the food options available to people in marginalized neighborhoods, where quality grocery stores selling healthier food options are often unavailable.
In other pieces, Booker draws parallels between the displacement of Native Americans and the disenfranchisement black Americans. “Redskin” shows a Native American man in profile and uses the colors of Mexico’s flag to nod to the crisis at the border for descendants of indigenous people. “Rebel” shows a black man who fought Native Americans on behalf of his white employers, fleshing out the complicated relationships at play among marginalized people.
Red Line is a natural progression of Booker’s 2017 series I Live Here, and it reflects his observations of the changes happening in North Nashville. In that series, he set out to paint the people from both the Werthan Lofts and the Metro Housing Agency sides of Rosa Parks Boulevard, two neighborhoods that are side-by-side but hold distinct differences. I Live Here, and its extension called I Live Here Too, hesitates to take a stand on the issue of gentrification, even though it explores the people in our shifting city. These portraits are accessible and meaningful — they put faces to people who are part of Nashville’s growth and stress the human element. Red Line looks at the history of American race relations, pointedly criticising policies that were intentionally and systematically discriminatory.
The theme evoked by the materials can extend to the issue of mass incarceration, the barbed-wire circles symbolic of excluding formerly incarcerated people from gaining employment and housing and accessing the right to vote. Booker is open about his own period of incarceration, and his understanding of freedom and liberty comes across in Red Line more pointedly than in his previous work. The series shows a willingness to branch out and take risks, to embrace a new style of painting eloquently and with confidence.
As with Booker’s previous work, Red Line creates space for unanswered questions. The unusual color palette is memorable and prompts dialogue.
“It struck me that even though there is this history of conflict, there’s also a balance with the two [colors] that works,” says Booker. “Seeing those two flesh tones next to each other is visually pleasing. So maybe there’s hope. Who knows?”