Through art, be a witness to the high price of hate

Detail of Doris Salcedo’s ‘Plegaria Muda,’ which calls to mind the spirits of those lost to hate and violence.
Detail of Doris Salcedo’s ‘Plegaria Muda,’ which calls to mind the spirits of those lost to hate and violence.

The best art will leave a mark on your conscience. To this day, since I first saw it at a premiere in 1989, I can readily quote scenes from Do the Right Thing in my head.

Visually, I can bring the image to mind and from there I can recall what the character at hand was saying. Among many, there’s a scene in the Spike Lee film where Mookie, our main character/narrator, and Radio Raheem (famous for walking around with a boom box as a kind of town crier) engage in a tête-à-tête on love and hate with Radio Raheem doing the talking.

He concludes after a shadow boxing scene in which “Love” KOs “Hate,” with the sage admission: “If I love you, I love you. If I hate you …” That ellipsis sits ice cold in the air of a hot summer day, unwavering silence. There’s no answer, or conclusion, because the hate doesn’t make sense. There’s no way to understand it.

What do I do with my hate for you?

Raheem pauses with the conclusion, “I love you, Mook,” and moves in strongly for the hug. But what can we do with hate? With hate, we can kill. And with hate — especially hate based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation — writ large by individual voices that become collective voices, we kill en masse, à la slavery or Manifest Destiny, which included the extermination of natives in the Americas, the Holocaust and all of the tragedies of terror we face today.

For almost two months, I have been surrounded by more than 25 years of art that is about the evil that men do when they hate. It is beautiful, seductive art marked by surreal character, a dearth of color but a clarity of form, exactitude of line and incredible sense for the metaphorical power of an object.

Doris Salcedo was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia in 1958. She was born the same year that the country’s government took a stand against La Violencia of the previous years’ civil war. Throughout the 1980s, violence intensified and led to the deaths of many people over a sustained period of time and under often deliberately hateful circumstances.

Salcedo’s work comes directly out of this experience but is not only about Colombia — it is about amazing violence, the kind of evil violence that is unfathomable for most of us.

Plegaria Muda, in particular reminds us that one experience of hate is the same as any other, and that hate that leads to violence and killing looks the same all over the world. Walking through the maze-like installation of 6-foot long tables — surface to surface, separated by 6 inches of soil — is to walk through a cemetery of invisible bodies. These bodies, of course, are those of the spirits we are left with from recent violence in France, Ivory Coast, Belgium, Florida.

It’s time again to KO hate, and artists lead the way. Listen to artists, don’t just look at their art, but also witness.

Franklin Sirmans is director of Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Read the Miami Herald’s review of Doris Salcedo’s installation.