I grew up in a West Indian household, a first-generation child of immigrants. The values of honor and respect were paramount in forming who my sister and I are were, as my parents believed they formed one’s character, something that is extremely important to any working-class immigrant. We were constantly hearing, “We came to this country for you to have XYZ,” but at the same time we were—and are—very proud of where we came from. Like many immigrant kids, our parents worked multiple jobs in order to provide for us. I’ll never forget what that meant to my sister and I, and what my parents had to go through to help us become who we are today.
West Indians love to flip a verse. Often my grandmother would say, “Walk good.” And when she would call me from a different room and I would say, “I’m coming,” she would always respond with, “Stop coming and COME!”
“Forward Ever, Backward Never” is a phrase that, for as long as I can remember, most West Indians not only used, but lived by. It was coined by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president of Ghana, but it was adopted and used by many in the Islands. On one level, its meaning and implication are obvious, but there is a deeper meaning to it for folks from the West Indies.
In 1993 I made a piece entitled Everforward, a double play on Nkrumah’s phrase and the Everlast brand of boxing equipment. The piece was part of a larger body of work that explored entertainment and the sport of boxing, specifically highlighting boxing’s exploitation of violence as entertainment, black bodies, and cultural identity. Boxing is referred to as the “Sweet Science,” the king of combat sports.
From as far back as Jack Johnson, and later Joe Louis, boxing transcended being simply a sport. It had serious political import. Johnson was the first black champion and, as such, he traveled worldwide. He was a flamboyant and outspoken champion at a time when people of color had no voice or political power. He was a figure through whom people could vicariously experience having a voice.
Joe Louis was also a great champion, but he was temperamentally almost the exact opposite of Johnson. He was extremely quiet and understated but, powerfully, represented the notion of the US versus Nazi Germany in his fight against Max Schmeling. He was a cultural icon to many, both Black and White.
Everforward is a pair of white boxing gloves with the phrase “EverForward” stitched on one glove and “NeverBack” on the other. I chose white gloves, both for their minimal aesthetic and to highlight boxing’s violence by encouraging the viewer to imagine the visual evidence the gloves would hold if, in fact, boxers wore them during a match. Thus the phrase embroidered on the gloves holds personal, political, and cultural references. My hope was to raise questions, public and private, collective and individual, about the political climate at the time.
It’s always interesting, as an artist, to look back at old work and see how it holds up over the passing of time. You immediately ask yourself: Is it relevant? Is it current in addressing political and aesthetic questions? Looking at Everforward in today’s context, I think it still raises the questions and addresses the issues that it pointed to when it was made.
In the early ’90s, we were coming out of the Reagan/Bush years—politically contentious and volatile times. The economy was in trouble, police brutality against people of color seemed to occur daily, and the AIDS epidemic was decimating communities. Racial tension was high—the Yusef Hawkins case and the Crown Heights riots being the clearest examples. The Administration’s attention to these issues was minimal at best. Artists responded with work that was content-based, political, and activist. Groups like ACT UP, General Idea, Group Material, and the Guerrilla Girls were out front responding during this period, when the art world, too, had been hit by the serious recession.
Then came President Bill Clinton, and with him came the possibility of change—and hope that attention might become focused on voices that had been relegated to the sidelines for so long. Artists reacted, and installation and video artists had a platform now that the economy was starting to recover. The focus was on immersing the viewer in an environment or experience. The art market began to recover as a new Wall Street collector base entered the market. Careers began to be made in the auction rooms. But, ultimately, with any good comes the bad: sadly, as the market began to recover, interest in politically based work ebbed. The recovery and spike in the market continued throughout the Bush era, prolonging this sidelining of work that addressed issues of race and difference, despite their continued relevance.
The last eight years have been an incredible period in history. But, unfortunately, with the comfort of a thoughtful, caring president came a certain kind of complacency. Barack Obama and his administration took office against an extremely difficult landscape: the country was at odds with itself, the economy had major problems, and xenophobia was prevalent. Barack Obama is not just a president: he is an icon of hope and of the potential for good. He took on a country in crisis with grace, eloquence, and equanimity. Now, eight years later, we have become not only accustomed to, but reliant on his perspicacity and calm demeanor, for when Barack spoke, the future was inclusive and hopeful. But, despite his positive influence, there are still unresolved issues of difference lurking under the surface. We still have police brutality, racism, and xenophobia. Our recent election cycle gave a microphone to some of the darkest voices we have heard in a long time, voices that speak feelings that have clearly been germinating for many years. People are unnerved. Wounds that never healed have been reopened. The new commander in chief must recognize the volatility of these raw wounds and stop blowing hot air onto already scalding coals, for his is a dangerous and divisive voice.
As Michelle Obama so eloquently said, “When they go low, we go high.” Looking back at Everforward today, I hear echoes from the past. A lot of the issues I was trying to address then are just as relevant today. We need to keep looking forward and learning from the past, not reliving it. When I try to find the positive in our uncertain political future, I find it in the hope that artists will again use their work to give voice to those who are silenced and less fortunate. As Barack Obama said in his farewell speech, “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing.” Or as my grandmother used to tell me, “Walk good.”
Gary Simmons is a New York–born artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. Using icons and stereotypes of American popular culture, his work explores race, cultural politics, memory, personal experiences, and reconstructions of the past. Winner of the Studio Museum’s Joyce Alexander Wein Prize (2013), his solo shows include Gary Simmons at MCA Chicago in 2002 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2001, among others. His work is featured in major collections, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; La Colección Jumex in Mexico City; the Walker Art Center; and the Whitney Museum of Art, among others. His work has been included in several Walker exhibitions including The Squared Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art (2003). His installation Ghost Reels is on view at the Drawing Center in New York through October 7, 2017.
The views reflected in the Artist Op-Ed series are those of the artists and do not necessarily represent those of the Walker Art Center.