The neighbourhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the site of a devastating yet often overlooked chapter in America’s past. In the early 1900s, the district became renowned as the “Black Wall Street”, a thriving, self-sufficient community where residents pooled their resources together, overcoming the racist Jim Crow laws designed to prevent African Americans from gaining economic mobility.
In May 1921, a white lynch mob stormed Greenwood in one of the most horrifying race riots in US history. The mob murdered about 300 black residents and burned much of the district to the ground, leaving thousands destitute.
Incredibly, after the riot, Greenwood’s residents pulled together to rebuild the neigbourhood, with no help from the government. It is this transition from ashes to triumph that intrigues the Alabama-born artist Rick Lowe, who recently spoke at the American Alliance of Museums conference in New Orleans about his work to commemorate the legacy of the Black Wall Street massacre in the run up to its centenary in 2021.
Internationally renowned for his landmark initiative, Project Row Houses, Lowe’s medium is social sculpture, an art form that uses neighbourhoods and communities themselves as artistic raw material, harnessing the power of creativity to change people’s lives.
“Coming from a disadvantaged background, the arts weren’t part of my upbringing,” says Lowe. “When I became an artist, my goal was to figure out how I could take advantage of the opportunities in the art world and connect them to communities that are disadvantaged.”
Starting out in the 1980s, Lowe’s first experiences of galleries and museums shaped this motivation. “I was doing work about lynching and police brutality and those kinds of things that were cast upon African-American communities, and when I would show them in the context of the art world, there would be no African Americans there.”
He was particularly struck by the lack of cultural equity he saw. “Artists like myself were all doing things that were of great benefit to the cultural institutions, but we weren’t able to leverage that to impact our own neighbourhoods.
“I was asked to co-curate an exhibition of young African-American artists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and they kind of used me in the fundraising. They got a sizeable grant to do this project and I started to look at how few of the resources from that grant were actually impacting the African-American community, although in the application it was all about how the project was going to have such an impact. That got me thinking: how can we do stuff that’s really going to have a residual impact at neighbourhood level?”
Sculpting the neighbourhood
Early in his career, Lowe “stumbled across” the German artist Joseph Beuys, a pioneer of the concept of social sculpture. “I was able to latch onto that as a way of doing something that would have the aesthetic, poetic and cultural relevance to the art world, but also have a practical implication for the community.”
In 1993 Lowe and six fellow artists purchased 22 run-down houses in an impoverished part of Houston, Texas, and set about restoring them as art and community spaces.
“It was about sculpting the neighbourhood,” says Lowe. “Taking this old area with dilapidated little houses and trying to recontextualise these houses in a way that might capture the imagination of people in terms of what the possibilities are in a low-income, urban neighbourhood.”
Although Lowe is critical of the elitism of cultural institutions, he saw the potential for them to help with this work.
“There were a couple of museums that said we want to support you, so that was the first time I started to see how the museum could come outside of its own walls and really participate in work that was relevant to the art world from their perspective, but also relevant to the community that I was trying to reach.”
Project Row Houses started out by running residencies for visiting artists and went on to establish youth mentoring and education initiatives. The project has taken on an extraordinary life of its own. Lowe says: “There’s a world of difference in having to leave your neighbourhood and go somewhere else to experience ‘high culture’. If you have it in your own neighbourhood it has a psychological impact.”
There is one initiative of which Lowe is particularly proud. “The most surprising thing we ended up doing was a residential component for single mothers. The idea was that if art is something that has the power to transform, then what is more powerful than positioning it in a way that could transform the actual lives of people?”
The young mothers residential programme offers disadvantaged women a year of free housing in Project Row Houses as a way of opening up their creative potential and giving them the capacity to overcome challenges in their own lives.
“There was one young woman in the programme who said it took her a while to figure out what all the art stuff had to do with it,” Lowe says. “She realised that what it did was allow her to see herself as a work of art, that she was actually transforming herself, just like the artists who were there. To me that was the epitome of what the programme was about.”
Some of the participants have gone on to become artists themselves. “Many of them are already doing very interesting things with their lives just out of survival. But if you can get them to see that creativity in a way that is not just about the practicality of surviving but also a poetic experience, they start to adapt. It’s amazing how many people have come forth as artists.”
Understanding the impact
Interest in social sculpture has exploded in recent years, as artists and cultural institutions seek to become more socially engaged. But, as a lecturer, Lowe says he warns his own students to be honest about their reasons for doing it and be careful to understand the impact it can have.
“If you mess up a painting, ok, you’ve wasted some paint but it’s not harming anything. But if you mess up in a community you could end up with some deep problems. It’s like working with a hazardous material. You want to be thoughtful about it so you don’t contaminate a place where people have to live.”
After a quarter of a century, Lowe recently stepped back from Project Row Houses to explore new creative endeavours. “It is an institution in its own right now and I’m very excited about that.”
Lowe has started drawing and painting again for the first time in years, but social sculpture remains his primary focus. “It’s not about personal expressions for me, it’s more about generating these platforms for other people.”
This ethos will drive the work Lowe is doing around the centenary of the Black Wall Street massacre, which involves two separate projects. One is with a community association in Greenwood, the other with a museum in Chicago. Both projects are still at an early stage.
“We’re trying to make it a locally centred effort, working with local artists to help them understand how to actually pull this off,” Lowe says.
Lowe is interested in exploring the social dynamics that developed in Greenwood. He points out that, although its success came from a spirit of racial solidarity, the area became divided by the same wealth gap seen elsewhere in the US. He says cultural institutions need to keep building on their potential to bridge that divide.
“Museums generally attract the wealthiest people in a city, and many of those people have wealth that they could put in other places – that’s a role that museums can play.”
Rick Lowe was born in Alabama in 1961. He trained as a landscape painter at Columbus College in Georgia and moved to Houston in 1985, where he studied
at Texas Southern University.
He was mentored there by the famous African American muralist John Biggers. In the 1980s, Lowe became known for his politically-charged art, creating large installations themed around racial injustice.
Determined that his work should act as a more direct catalyst for social change, Lowe shifted his focus in the early 1990s to the medium of social sculpture, an art form that works with the creativity of communities.
In 2014, he became a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, a five-year grant recognizing individuals who demonstrate excellence in their field.
Lowe’s social sculpture at a glance
Project Row Houses is in the Third Ward in Houston, Texas, one of the city’s oldest African American neighbourhoods. Founded in 1993, it now covers five city blocks and 39 structures, and is a thriving community and arts hub.
Lowe’s social sculpture model is inspired by the five principles of his mentor John Biggers: art and creativity; education; social safety nets; architecture; and sustainability.
Lowe recently worked with the art collective Documenta 14 on the Victoria Square Project, a social sculpture in Athens, Greece, that addressed the refugee crisis.
In his latest initiative, the Greenwood Art Project, Lowe will oversee the creation of eight art installations in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The project intends to commemorate the centenary of the Black Wall Street massacre of 31 May 1921, and celebrate the power of community resilience.