• Sam Needleman

In Review: "1919: Black Water"

Buell brings the brilliant Torkwase Dyson to campus.


By Sam Needleman · Published November 11, 2019.


While dogged administrators implore us to fête the Core Curriculum’s hundredth birthday, a more critical, urgent, and altogether illuminating centennial is on view at GSAPP’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, located in Buell Hall, until December. In “1919: Black Water,” the multidisciplinary artist Torkwase Dyson presents new pictorial sculptures and sculptural paintings concerned with the Chicago riots that followed the death of Eugene Williams in that year. Williams, a black teenager, entered a segregated section of Lake Michigan on a summer day and was murdered by white stone-throwers.

Illustration by Lilly Cao

Dyson’s most immediate and tangible interest relating to that “Red Summer” is the raft that Williams and his four black friends constructed from found materials to float on the lake. Circular pieces like “Plantationocene” and “Being-Seeing-Drifting” incorporate wood with an aesthetic and thematic precision at once seamless and disorienting. Four GSAPP student-curators provide rich wall text: “The exhibition advances Dyson’s research on the ways that water, historically and in the present, operates as a contest geography and how climate change disproportionately affects people of color around the world.” The show’s anchors, three plexiglass sculptures entitled “Black Shoreline,” are hollow trapezoidal prisms that pull the viewer toward them at every turn. They distill the paradoxical proximity between liberation and oppression.


Where a less creative artist might stop at surveying architecture’s role in the events and ideas that they have summoned for scrutiny, Dyson consistently returns to the raw and striking fact of its omnipresence; rather than resign herself to parsing a form, she asserts one. This task is aided by a booklet featuring, among other instructive supplements, a conversation with Columbia professor Mabel Wilson. After an exchange about The Bluest Eye, Wilson says, “Somebody should write a book about the architecture of Toni Morrison.” “We should do it,” Dyson replies. “We should collaborate.” One can’t help but imagine a subsequent joint lecture, perhaps on the other side of Buell—a Core Centennial event worth booking a ticket for.

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