Knight at the Museum: Guns Without Borders gives edge to WAM exhibit
By Kimberly Dunbar
Despite being surrounded by knights in shining armor, you can’t be rescued from the harsh reality of the Knights! exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM).
Lurking behind the happy pink walls in the realm of Good + Evil is a white room filled with dark truths. This room ~ the Guns Without Borders in Mexico and Central America exhibit ~ features disturbing images of victims of gun violence in Mexico and Central America. There is blood. There is heartbreak. There is no shortage of emotion.
“It is a very powerful exhibition and a stark contrast to the fun that comes before it,” said Nancy Burns, assistant curator of prints, drawings and photographs for WAM and the curator of the Guns Without Borders space. “It is a welcome contrast for some people and a little intense, but appreciated, by others. I don’t think it is for everyone ~ but art exhibits don’t always have to be for everyone.”
The space was intended to be shocking. The exhibit explores the here-and-now ramifications of arms and armor in society and is part of the museum’s commitment to providing “high-impact audience engagement initiatives.” Burns included 32 objects in the small space ~ eight hanging images and 24 projected ~ which she designed to be a quiet, reflective area.
“These photos represent a subset of society whose story doesn’t get told,” she said. “I didn’t want a glamorous environment … The images are so stark, they should be the only thing speaking in the room.”
But one might ask why there is a need to pair these depressing and gory images of gun violence with the majesty of armor and a real Batman suit.
“There is juxtaposition,” said Burns, who calls the space “meaningfully designed.”
“People are looking at these beautiful objects with fascination. They’re a tie to a romantic world. But [Guns Without Borders] reminds them what weapons and armor were made for … Some of the weapons were made for design back then, but at the end of the day, a sword is meant to impale someone and a shield is meant to protect someone from harm.”
Burns worked in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to pick the right photos for the space. The Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to supporting international reporting, sponsors journalists and photographers for projects that explore the root causes of violence and how challenges in society like poverty, religious and racial tensions, and lack of opportunity lead to conflict.
“There isn’t a social infrastructure in place to help those who have fallen through society’s safety net,” Burns said, explaining the conditions conducive to violence.
When Burns decided to focus on guns, the Pulitzer Center connected her with three artists ~ Dominic Bracco II, Carlos Javier Ortiz and Louie Palu ~ all of whom were sponsored to explore the untold effects of gangs and gun violence in Mexico and Central America.
“I like that it focuses on one singular region,” Burns said. “There are so many issues related to gun violence in Central America and Mexico, and it is easier for an audience to have a bracket around what they’re looking at. It would have made the message diffuse if we had brought in other regions.”
According to Burns, Central America has become one of the most dangerous places in the world, but it hits closer to home than many realize. In the Guns Without Borders exhibit, Burns includes research from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which found that between 2007-11 “two out of every three guns confiscated in Mexico were purchased in the U.S.”
“The U.S. has the highest civilian population of guns ~ there are 89 guns for every 100 people. Yemen is second with 46 per 100,” Burns said. “The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it has no less than 30 percent of civilian-owned guns.”
Despite these alarming numbers, North American media continues to cover discord in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Ukraine but gives very little coverage to what Burns calls “the war next door.”
“There is this kind of avoidance of the violence associated with weapons,” she added.
Burns, WAM, the Pulitzer Center and the three photographers worked hard to make sure those who visit Guns Without Borders walk away a little more enlightened than they came.
“I do hope the message of the ramifications of gun and weapons violence hits people,” she said. “My hope is that after looking at this, they take a walk back through the exhibit again and look at everything they just saw differently and reassess all the objects they just looked at.”
Even Batman. Although Bruce Wayne used his powers for the good, he needed a suit of armor for a reason.
Guns Without Borders in the Knights! exhibit at Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., runs through Nov. 9. For more information, visit worcesterart.org.