“I have post-traumatic slavery disorder. And I suffer from that everyday,” James Montford (Ari) tells a couple students visiting his exhibition “This Is Not My Color” a couple weeks back. It’s on view at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery through March 7. “Part of that is performance, but it’s true. … It’s meant to be sort of comical, tongue-in-cheek, but these are issues I’ve been struggling with for a long time.”

The small exhibition is a glimpse into the career of the Boston artist. His art often provocatively addresses America’s legacy of racist violence as well as continued oppression in the culture today that he sees as a person identifying as African-American, Native American and European-American.

The exhibit presents laptop computers that he’s altered during a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, last year. You might not notice it at first, but the keyboards spell out “genocide” or “holocaust nigger.”

“The red one—the red which is symbolic of blood—is symbolic of native genocide,” Montford says. “Red skin, red blood.”

Ari "Native Genocide," 2017. (Greg Cook)
Ari “Native Genocide,” 2017. (Greg Cook)

Some of the laptop screens show “Holocaust Blankets with Smallpox,” an installation including a pile of folded blankets meant to evoke the massacre of Native Americans by European colonists, which he plans to exhibit in an upcoming show at Rhode Island School of Design. One screen shows a photo of a performance in which he had himself “lynched” by putting a hood over his head and binding himself up with a dozen nooses.

The exhibit also includes maps on which he’s replaced street names with racist epithets and self-portraits in which he appears as an astronaut floating in space. His most striking efforts (not exhibited here) have been solo protests against what he’s seen as the racism still embedded in New England institutions—including an occasion when he scrawled “No Coons Here!” on the wall of a major gallery at the opening reception of an exhibit that he argued unfairly overlooked black artists.


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Ari at Salem State University, Feb. 14, 2018 (Greg Cook)
Ari at Salem State University, Feb. 14, 2018 (Greg Cook)

Now in his mid 60s, Montford is in the process of changing his name to Ari. “I just introduced myself to both of you with my slave name. Montford is my slave name,” he tells the students. “I’ve been doing that for over 60 years, introducing myself with my slave name. Think what that does to you. … So that becomes a larger issue to me in life. I had ancestors that came here in slave ships. … I come from a time in this country when civil rights was still being fought for. But I still introduce myself by my slave name. I’m not free.”

Ari has placed a Confederate battle flag on the floor right inside the gallery door like an (un)welcome mat. Many people walking in try to figure a way to not step on it and when that proves difficult, quickly and gingerly step across.

“Right now I’m standing on this flag. This flag represents horrific things,” Ari tells the students. “It’s not meant to be welcoming. It’s meant to open up a dialogue.”

He proposes that the university hang the flags of nations from all over the world in a main dining hall. “I’m on this campaign to see about doing things like that. I’ve heard about things that happened here before. But some of it [the change] has to come from students.”

Ari's “This Is Not My Color” exhibition at Salem State University. (Greg Cook)
Ari’s “This Is Not My Color” exhibition at Salem State University. (Greg Cook)

‘Whites Only USA’

Ari’s invitation to exhibit at Salem State University is part of the school’s ongoing response to a series of events that have brought racial tensions to the foreground at this college, which is this reported to have one the most diverse student populations in the Massachusetts’ university system.

A 2106 exhibit titled “State of the Union” that opened in the school’s Winfisky Gallery on the day after Donald Trump won the presidency, attracted complaints for paintings by Lowell artist Garry Harley that depicted a gang of white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen and a World War II scene of Jewish people being rounded up by Nazis.

Racist graffiti sprayed on Salem State University's baseball field in September 2017.
Racist graffiti sprayed on Salem State University’s baseball field in September 2017.

Last May, the university’s Twitter account was hacked and racist and pro-Trump tweets were sent out before the school regained control. Last September, “Die Niggers,” “Trump #1 Whites Only USA” and “Whites #1” were spraypainted on benches and a wall at the school’s baseball field.

In response, the school canceled classes one day last October to hold an outdoor campus-wide forum on the incidents. More than 100 students—mostly students of color—protested during the event, chanting, “We have no voice.” The protesters then held their own forum days later.

The school conducted a survey of students, faculty and staff released in early November that found that many students of color felt “excluded or intimidated.”

In January, graffiti reading “white power” and calling for killing police was found on the city’s bike path near the university.

“This is sort of my response to it. Now you can decide to come into the gallery,” Ari says, still standing on that Confederate flag on the floor. “It’s part of the power dynamics, the struggle that is going on in the country right now and we’re experiencing that dynamic. This campus has recently had some racial tension. This is meant to respond to that.”

Ari's statement at Salem State University's gallery: "Why I Say Nigger." (Greg Cook)
Ari’s statement at Salem State University’s gallery: “Why I Say Nigger.” (Greg Cook)

A Product Of The Civil Rights Movement

Ari’s father is African-American, his mother, who passed away a year ago, was a Massapequa Pequot. (The family believes Simeon Simons, a native guide to George Washington during the Revolution was an ancestor.) His dad spent his career in the Coast Guard, often away serving on ice breakers in the arctic or involved in maintaining sea supply lines for the United States’ war in Vietnam. His mother was a stay at home mom.

The postcard for Ari’s “This Is Not My Color” exhibition shows a rainbow of Crayola crayons with a pinkish one in the middle labeled “flesh.” Though not the color of his flesh. (He recently exhibited the crayons in the exhibition “Legacy of Cool: A Tribute to Berkley L. Hendricks” at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston.) Ari says, “I grew up with the facts of playing with that Crayola 50 years ago.”

Ari was the oldest of four kids growing up in New London, Connecticut, and Honolulu, Hawaii. At his last high school track meet running hurdles in New Britain, he says he was recruited to attend Brandeis University in 1970 under the federally funded Upward Bound program aimed at increasing schools’ diversity.

“I’m a product of the civil rights movement,” Ari told me in 2014. “The doors opened a little bit in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and I was one of the people they let through.”

“I had no college plans. I had no plans to do anything at all,” Ari said.

At Brandeis, he found his way into abstract painting and urban planning. He became immersed in the art world when he spent some years in New York. He studied at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute of Art. He painted minimalist artworks in the vein of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden.

Ari "Holocaust Nigger" (detail), 2018. (Greg Cook)
Ari “Holocaust Nigger” (detail), 2018. (Greg Cook)

‘I Had Never Seen The Klan’

“I had never seen the Klan,” Ari told me in 2014. “It was always something I had heard about and read about, but their actual presence was overwhelming.”

It was around 1983 when he and a his friend, the celebrated African-American painter Barkley Hendricks, posed as photographers to witness a Ku Klux Klan rally in Norwalk, Connecticut.

“There were about a dozen Klan members in their Klan regalia behind a police fence in a public park. There was a crowd of 300 to 400 people, all white,” he recalled.

“We went right up to the barriers and posed as photographers, we had a lot of cameras and lights and a lot of paraphernalia. They came right up to us with their blow horns and they said, ‘These niggers are the problem.’ We were the only black people there. It was a defining moment because I felt somebody could have just put a knife in my back.”

Ari recalled, “There was a moment when I realized I put my life in severe jeopardy. These people would kill me if they could.”

After witnessing the Klan rally, he began making hangman’s nooses and collecting mammy dolls and other commercial memorabilia featuring racist caricatures of black folks that he then lynched in videos.

“It took me about year to process it,” Ari said in 2014. “It changed the direction of my work.”

Hunger Fast

“Martin Luther King Day To Be Recognized: James Montford, Minority Advisor, Ends Six Day Fast,” the headline in the Phillips Exeter Academy student newspaper read in December 1989.

The New Hampshire school, which gave him a home and studio, was an oasis for him and his two sons after he divorced his wife. “But they didn’t celebrate the [Martin Luther] King holiday,” he told me in 2014. “What does that mean?” He tried to get the school to recognize the assassinated civil rights leader, but felt his efforts were going nowhere. “So I decided I was doing to do a performance piece. … I went on a hunger fast. … I’d drink water, but I would not eat until they agreed to celebrate the King holiday.”

Word spread around the campus as he hung signs, “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Day 5” in the window of his office in the library building. “Day seven, I got this note from the principal’s office. It said, ‘James, stop your fast. We’ll do whatever you want to do.’”

He ended it with an open forum, attended by nearly 300 people, to answer questions. “I decided on my own that I had to leave [the school soon after]. I realized that I was messenger and other people had to come after that. It was so intense to be there.” (When the school held its 20th annual MLK Day in 2011, it invited him back he encouraged students to speak up to improve the world.)

Ari has since worked at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, Rhode Island School of Design and, from 2005 until recently, as a teacher at Rhode Island College and director of its Bannister Gallery.

“My work from then forward,” Ari told me in 2014, “was about a willingness to take risks.”

Ari "After columbus," 1996, mixed media on canvas. (Greg Cook)
Ari “After columbus,” 1996, mixed media on canvas. (Greg Cook)


Ari says he had been making small paintings of abstract patterns inspired by Native American baskets. But he shifted to making collages (some are on view at Salem State) of street maps of Hartford, Washington, D.C., and other major cities in which he replaced the real street names with “Darkie Drive” and other racist slurs.

He exhibited one of his altered maps at Hartford’s Old State House in 1991. “I did one that was all about Hartford. I changed all the names to Jigaboo Lane and Nigger Way,” Ari says. “The financial district and the area downtown that’s the cultural district, I just flipped it. Instead of being Main Street, I named it Nigger Way.”

African-American guards at the Old State House were offended and got the building’s director to remove the artwork. The institution later gave Ari a one-person show—including one of his map pieces—after the Will K. Wilkins, then and still now executive director of Real Art Ways, helped mediate the dispute.

Ari performing as a living lawn jockey in the early 2000s. (Courtesy of the artist)
Ari performing as a living lawn jockey in the early 2000s. (Courtesy of the artist)

Ari continued to provocatively explore racism in photos of lawn jockeys and a sound-piece that bombarded listeners with racist slurs. In 1992, he began doing a series of lynching performances. “I had all these nooses that I’d been making for years and I put them all on me.”

A haunting photo in his archive shows him under a black hood, bound by numerous nooses to a column outside Niagara University’s Castelliani Art Museum in the early 2000s. He uses a photo of a similar performance on one of his altered laptops.

“I call it ‘Will He Pee His Pants?’” Ari says of these lynching performances. They’re endurance acts, each lasting around two hours. “I have done it where I peed my pants.”

Ari's lynching performance at Niagara University’s Castelliani Art Museum in the early 2000s. (Courtesy of the artist)
Ari’s lynching performance at Niagara University’s Castelliani Art Museum in the early 2000s. (Courtesy of the artist)

‘No Coons Here!’

In February 1995, Ari caused a scandal at an opening reception attended by hundreds of people for an exhibition called “RAW Space,” which featured work by Sol LeWitt and 21 other Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts artists at Hartford’s prominent alternative arts center Real Art Ways. Upset by the lack of black artists in the show, he borrowed a friend’s lipstick and scrawled “No Coons Here!” right on the wall.

Ari says he had gone to a Hartford event earlier that day at which the African-American artist Benny Andrews was presented with the key to the city. “And then I went over to this gallery,” he recalls. “His key wouldn’t open that door.”

The gallery opted to keep Ari’s graffiti on the wall during the exhibition while also defending its record of exhibiting artists of color—including art by Ari the previous spring—and noting that two of the artists in the exhibit Ari protested were Asian-American. “I think James Montford wanted to be in the show. Now he’s in the show, and I hope he’s happy,” Real Art Ways Executive Director Will K. Wilkins told the Hartford Courtant at the time.

Ari remains proud of his protest: “That was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Ari "Black Indian Pow Wow," 2016, mixed media on panel. (Greg Cook)
Ari “Black Indian Pow Wow,” 2016, mixed media on panel. (Greg Cook)

The Future of Racism

In the early 2000s, at the time of his Niagara University lynching performance, Ari dressed as a living cigar store Indian wearing a child’s toy feather headdress at Buffalo City Hall. He says police arrived to arrest him for another performance in which he stood outside the government building as a living lawn jockey with a flaming torch.

“Right as they were about to do that, the news crew showed up,” Ari recalled. The TV anchorman “steps up and starts talking with me. … Then it switches to this art thing. This guy basically saves my life and then does this really nice [TV] representation.”

Over the past few years, Ari has been making collaged self-portraits in which he appears as an astronaut floating in space—sometimes amidst racist caricatures of African-Americans and Native Americans. The gestures of the figures are meant to evoke the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose often performed in Black Lives Matter protests since a white police officer shot an unarmed black teen by the name of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

“I’ve always wanted to go to space,” Ari says. But he wonders if the racism prevalent here on earth will continue off the planet.

Ari "Hands Up Don't Shoot," 2017, mixed media on panel. (Greg Cook)
Ari “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” 2017, mixed media on panel. (Greg Cook)

“We are here on this planet and I’m trying to toy with the notion and anticipate the notion that we’ll all be in space,” Ari says. “Am I going to get there? Is this skin color going to get there? If so, what’s going to be the process? … In space will it be hands up, don’t shoot? Because that’s the process I’ve experienced here. Do we leave it here or do we take it there?”

In 2014, he told me, “Very little has changed in the last 60 or 70 years. White culture has managed to create the appearance of equity. But it’s just the appearance. The power structures haven’t been affected.”

Ari shows his testosterone patches at Salem State University. (Greg Cook)
Ari shows his testosterone patches at Salem State University. (Greg Cook)

Another inspiration for the exhibition title “This Is Not My Color” is testosterone supplement patches that his doctor recently prescribed him.

“I’m a black man, I’ve got all the virility I’ll ever need,” Ari jokes about the idea of needing testosterone to a gallery visitor. “I’ve got twice as much as you’d have, I’ve got three times as much as you’d have. This is testosterone.”

When he picked the patches up at the pharmacy, he discovered they were tinted a Caucasian “flesh” color.

“Calling this color as flesh, this is telling me that I don’t have health insurance,” Ari says. “I’m not important enough to have health insurance. There is no clear form, or a variety pack. The kicker is it was given to me by my Indian doctor, from India, who’s darker than me. What has he bought into? It’s very layered.”

“Here I am 50 years later, this is what I played with”—he says of the “flesh” crayon—“and this is what I have to wear,” Ari says. “It’s heavy shit.”

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Categories: Art