By Madelyn Smart
Pat Ward William’s multimedia art piece, “Accused, Blowtorch, Padlock” was created in 1986. The multidimensional work of art consists of a photocopied picture that William’s found in a 1937 Time Magazine article, depicting a man chained to a tree, his back burned, face contorted in pain, and his arm stretched out and locked
together behind him. After the first original image, Williams enlarges certain aspects of the photograph in order to continue with the theme of accused, blowtorch, and padlock. The first enlarged image depicts the man’s wrists tied together, the next is his contorted shoulders and his blistering, burned back, the final picture depicts the man’s face against the tree with his torso chained to its trunk. Around the four images is scribbled writing from Williams, discussing and asking questions about the photograph such as “WHO took this picture?”, “How long has he been LOCKED to that tree?”, “How can this photo exist?”, and so on in jagged and rushed-looking handwriting. Williams added the writing around the four images in order to draw the viewer in and make them an integral part of the artwork; not necessarily merely viewing the photographs, but having active thoughts about the questions posed throughout the artwork.
Williams developed her multimedia artwork as a reaction to a photograph of a black man being tortured before being lynched in a Time Magazine article in 1937. The photograph that Williams’ piece revolved around has one, stark, bleak caption, and is the only given piece of information about the photograph, stating that the man in the picture was “Accused in 1937 of murdering white in Mississippi, the black man was tortured with a blowtorch and then lynched.” (Lombardi). The photograph does not show the man being lynched, but instead, the process of torture before the actual lynching, as was common during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Through the photograph and William’s writing around the piece, the viewers are able to presume that the man who took the photograph was also held somewhat responsible for the torturing of this man before he was even lynched. Williams poses questions such as, “WHO took this picture?”, “Couldn’t he just as easily let the man go?”, “Did he take his camera home and then come back with a blowtorch?” in order to convey to the viewer that the same man who took the photographs was also responsible for the black man’s death.
Lynchings have been a dark topic of America’s past, starting in the early nineteenth century and continuing into the 1930s, lynchings were almost exclusively towards African Americans as a form of punishment as well as a scare tactic towards the African American community. Lynchings, however, did not merely mean hanging; they mostly resulted in a large spectacle of torture and then a hanging when their life was towards its end. These lynchings were usually public viewings with multiple witnesses, ending up on the front of postcards due to their prevalence and remaining as a constant and permanent reminder of the travesties that occurred as well as the power that the white community held over the black. Williams directly calls out the injustices happening within the picture of the torture as well as the unshown yet forthcoming lynching of the man.
The use of this photograph in a Time Magazine article is shocking and disgusting from the view of the modern day, but in the 30s it was not very uncommon. Lynchings were used on the front of postcards sold in convenient stores in the south up until the 1940s due to the continual and popular creation of photographs depicting lynchings and large crowds surrounding the trophies of hanging bodies; this tangibly showed the power the white community had over the blacks. Lynchings were not technically illegal and were never made a federal crime by Congress and still have not been till this day. Many bills were passed in the House of Representatives in the 1920s, then again in the 30s and 40s but none were ever voted on in the Senate due to southern filibusters.
Williams, through her use of creating the viewer as more of a witness, shows how these injustices were not only legal, but made common and publicly shown and published without any action being taken against these (should be) crimes due to the hold that the white community had over the law, especially those pertaining to African Americans and their rights. The white community, specifically white men, used their power over the law and over the African American community to continue these injustices and to have a lasting impact over the African American community and the law to this day. As Ashraf Rushdy puts it, as of 2000, “Only 8 whites have been executed for murdering black Americans since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, but 123 blacks have been put to death for murdering whites.” This goes to show the hypocrisy and the grip the white community had over back Americans can still be seen today within our judicial system as well as socially. These injustices can be seen through James Byrd, a man murdered and dismembered, whose murderer became the face for white supremacy, or Emmitt Till, whose mutilated body became a national movement against the rise of white supremacy (Rushdy), as well as Rodney King, the video of him being beaten to death by police officers, who were later freed of all charges, became the talk of the nation as the white hold over the judicial system could be clearly seen (Alexander, 79). All of these men were slain in the face of white men, some let free, others getting (some) of the punishment they deserved, but all continue to show a popular trend of the white hold on the law as well as the favoritism of the white community over black in all aspects of justice.
Williams’ call to action at the end of her artwork is not directly tied into this one man’s struggle and pain, but the system of legal lynchings and the hold over the black community by the whites as a whole. Williams urges the readers and witnesses of the art piece to think about these injustices, about Rodney King, James Byrd, and Emmitt Till. How many of these murders and injustices must happen before someone does anything? How much longer and how many more deaths must occur before white supremacy is no longer a threat to the African American community?
Themes and Style:
Williams creates a direct view and message through her use of text and visual aids alongside the original image of the torture. Williams enlarges certain aspects of the original image and encases them in an old window frame-like border to bring the viewer to truly witness what is happening in the photograph as a metaphorical window into that time period rather than just merely looking at a photograph. The first image in the four-panel window is the original window, with its torn out border visible, showing Williams’ disdain for the photo and lack of respect since she physically ripped the page out of the magazine. The next photo zooms in on the bound hands of the man, showing the “Accused” aspect of the title since when one is accused of a crime, they are handcuffed with their hands behind their back. The next photo is zoomed in on the back of the man, blistered from the blowtorch and portraying the “Blowtorch” aspect of the title. This photo also shows some of the agony the man is enduring based on the way the chain is digging into his back and how he is pushing himself towards the tree as to try and relieve some of the pain. The last photo depicts the rest of the man and the chains binding him to the trunk of the tree. The viewer is able to see some of his face and the pain it is distorted in. However, the main aspect of this photo are the bright chains contrasted against the dark trunk of the tree showing the portion of “padlock” within the title and how he is physically locked up to this tree.
Around the panels are thoughts scribbled down by Williams in white writing against black tar paper, creating a stark contrast between the black and white of the writing yet the ambiguity and confusion of what she is asking and writing about. The tarpaper also creates a subtle hint about the tarring that happened to those who spoke out against slavery in the nineteenth century. Within her texts, she makes the viewer participate and become an active and integral part of the artwork by asking rhetorical questions and speaking directly at the viewer. Her final statement “Somebody do something” is a call to action against the injustices happening within the photograph as well as those happening right now. Williams forces the viewer to consider their own personal views on the actions being taken place within the photo and how no one helped this man; not the photographer, not the man who tied him up, not the one who tortured and blowtorched him, not the one who hung him, nor the one who cut his body down after the deed was done. Someone could’ve done something at multiple stages within this one photograph being taken but nothing happens.
Pat Ward Williams’ multi-media piece, “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” has appeared in many world-class art exhibits around the world such as the Decade show in the New Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Contemporary Museum of Hispanic Art. When being featured in the exhibition, ”Re/Righting History: Counternarratives by Contemporary African-American Artists” at the Katonah Museum of Art, D. Dominick Lombardi describes the work as “the most powerful image in the exhibition”; Wendy Walters also describes “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” as one of the most powerful images based on a historical context. Williams’ piece has been revered for drawing the viewer into the art. As Walters describes it, Williams forces the viewer’s role of witnessing what took place before the man was hanged as well as how Williams calls the viewer to ponder the questions she posts around the artwork. Jennifer McFarlane-Harris also revers Williams’ work for altering the original photograph in order to force the viewer to witness the act of torture rather than the aftermath, being the corpse.
The actual piece of artwork is not only admired for being an iconic piece that incorporates the viewer, but also the overall message that is conveyed through the piece and the context of lynchings and torture of African Americans that the artwork builds upon. Photographs and imagery of slavery and torture of African Americans have been taboo for the past few decades in America, being banned from school textbooks and rarely used in other forms of media, such as movies and television. However, they were extremely common in the late nineteenth century and early to mid twentieth century, showing up on common items, including magazines and postcards. White onlookers would gather around the hung bodies and pose for pictures, which would later end up on the back of postcards at local convenient stores. Much as how the white onlookers would gather into a crowd to witness the lynching of an African American, white police officers engaged in that same act when witnessing the black man, Rodney King, be beat to the ground and killed by another officer. (Alexander, 79) None of them were found guilty, just like the men who gather around a lynching, and just like the man who took the photograph for Time Magazine.
Since the photograph was taken in 1937, almost seventy years since slavery was abolished, it seems absurd that this photograph and what it conveyed was legal, not to mention posted in a national magazine when it so closely resembles torture tactics used during slavery times. However, Joe Lockard describes how photographs of torture and lynchings, like the one found by Williams, were used as postcards and souvenir photos decades after slavery was made illegal and into the mid twentieth century since lynching was technically not illegal. This sheds light on the prevalence of these photographs and torture tactics used on the African American community since “There have always been narratives to justify the barbaric practices of slavery and lynching” (Alexander, 80).
Williams’ call to action draws on the fact that what happened in this photograph was not technically illegal in the eyes of the law, and how the culprit got away unharmed and unhindered by the law. Williams draws upon the continued spectacle of the torture and killings of African Americans in America’s modern-day society. There may not be lynchings anymore, but the headlines of African Americans being killed, specifically due to police violence, are still all too common. She asks us to think about the continued practice of the spectacle of the African American corpse and how it has shown up in our everyday lives, whether in videos, books, or photographs and how it can unify the common identity of African Americans, even after slavery.
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Pat Ward Williams
Post Slavery Photography