In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the experience of being a black man and the constant fear of being killed that comes with it. He also writes about the assumptions people make about young black men that lead to this violence – how seemingly innocuous things like hoodies and loud music have become associated with young black men and have somehow become a sign of danger and an excuse to kill. In looking for an exhibit that would highlight these ideas, I happened upon the photographer John Edmunds, and through researching his work, I found the 14×48 project and its Hoods series.
14×48 is a project that “repurposes vacant billboards as public art space in order to create more opportunities in public art for emerging artists, to challenge emerging artists to engage more with public art, and to enliven the vibrancy of our urban environment.” Artists can submit their artwork to 14×48, and if the organization approves it, they will find them billboard space and install the artwork for them; the artwork then remains up for typically a few months. 14×48 is based in New York City and has had art on billboards in locations throughout the city. There is a lot of diversity in the artwork it displays, covering topics from global warming and breast cancer awareness to a commentary on perfume advertisements. Some of the artwork is very serious in nature, and other works are more fun or even interactive.
One of 14×48’s featured artists, John Edmunds, uses his art to speak to some of the same issues that Coates writes about. John Edmunds is an up-and-coming photographer who got his Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 2016. Despite being a recent graduate, Edmunds is already very accomplished; he has won several awards, and over thirty exhibitions nationally and internationally have included his work. He has also given several lectures and public presentations, and he has work in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other collections. As a queer, black man, his work often focuses on questions of self-identity and public perceptions and challenges perceptions of black masculinity. Many of his works relate to the same themes that Coates discusses in Between the World and Me.
During the fall of 2016, 14×48 exhibited one of Edmunds’ works, called the Hoods series, which is a perfect example of this. Hoods is a series of photographs of an unidentified person wearing a hooded sweatshirt or hooded jacket; the photographs are of the back of the person’s head, and their face is not visible. This work challenges the viewer to think about the judgments they make when they see this “hooded figure.” A Huffington Post article about this series comments on this, saying:
From the angle, the subjects recall individuals like Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, young black men who were shot and killed after being deemed ‘suspicious-looking.’ Edmunds’ photos dare you to repeat the initial mistakes of those involved in their deaths, who projected racist and fearful fantasies onto a hooded stranger.
In an interview with the magazine The Fader, Edmunds revealed that although he initially created this series as an introspection on his own identity, he agrees with this wider interpretation. “[Given the] exterminating of black men in this country, I think most people see those images and think: black and male. That says a lot about where we are today,” Edmunds said. “I want the viewer to question the culture of identification that come with clothes or the code of dress.”
In a statement reminiscent of Coates, Edmunds also revealed what it is like to be a young black man out in public: “Black youth have a lot of decisions to make about how we present ourselves when going out into the world. We are all very mindful about watching our bodies. In public space especially. You’re continually being scrutinized and watched. But never really seen.” Hoods reflects this idea, with the camera up close to the figures, as if closely scrutinizing them, while at the same time seeing them only as a racial stereotype and not for the individuals they really are.
In his interview with The Fader, Edmunds mentioned that it is “dangerous” when art is only shown in exhibitions that reach an “art audience,” because this means that the art and its message cannot have as much of an impact. 14×48 solved this problem by exhibiting Hoods in Midtown Manhattan, where many people of all perspectives and backgrounds would have seen it every day. If effective, Hoods would have made at least some of these people think about the assumptions they were making and perhaps would have challenged their perceptions of black masculinity.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 130.
Featured Image: Untitled (Hood 2) (Courtesy of John Edmunds)