Professor Anita Hill and artist Mark Bradford (2014)
GLUED TO THEIR TELEVISIONS, most Americans ‘met’ Anita F. Hill on Oct. 11, 1991. That’s how Mark Bradford was introduced to her, too. In Los Angeles, in the neighborhood of Leimert Park, the TV in the beauty salon owned by his mother, Janice Banks, was tuned to the Clarence Thomas hearings for his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. The women in the shop were watching and so was Bradford. Hill appeared at the hearings to provide details about being sexually harassed by Thomas, who had been her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She gave her testimony before an all-male, all-white committee. The televised hearings lasted three days.
Back then, Bradford earned a living styling women’s hair. The scene described unfolded a few years before he studied at the California Institute of the Arts where he earned a BFA (1995) and an MFA (1997). His practice focuses primarily on mixed-media collage paintings, abstract works that raise social justice issues such as mass incarceration, predatory lending, and the AIDS crisis and give a voice to marginalized people. Bradford represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
A globally recognized artist now, over the past few years Bradford has been collaborating with Hill, a professor at Brandeis University. They’ve discussed his work publicly in Waltham, Mass., Los Angeles, and Venice. She brings a legal and policy lens to the topics he addresses in his work and she has contributed to two volumes about his art.
“He’s like my nephew,” Hill told The Baltimore Sun at the preview of “Tomorrow is Another Day,” Bradford’s Venice exhibition. “He’s an exceptional artist who takes a very formalized structure and makes it more vibrant and accessible for people like me. It’s up to those of us who care about art to move it to the next step of activism.
“I look at his ‘Medusa’ and wonder how we ensure that women who are sexually assaulted have a voice. How do we ensure that the women in his mother’s beauty shop can make their voices heard?”
Bradford and Hill first met in 2014 at Brandeis. A few years later, she contributed an essay to the “Tomorrow is Another Day” catalog. In the essay titled “Speaking Truth,” Hill calls Bradford an extraordinary artist and says she cannot overstate his contribution to her teaching and advocacy. About halfway through the text, she mentions her Senate testimony.
“Mark first ‘met’ me in his mom’s shop, courtesy of a small television set that entertained clients as they waited under hair dryers or sat facing rows of mirrors anticipating the beauty that would soon be revealed. At thirty-five, to a national audience including Banks’s Leimert Park beauty salon, I spoke about Thomas’s sexual harassment of the twenty-five year old me,” Hill writes.
“Because of his penchant for linking ideas to action, Mark would say, ‘Oh, I know what that is. This is what they’re calling feminism: speaking your truth to the people who may not agree.’ But what he didn’t know was that I had no game plan for how I would live in the world after being the subject of such a public display and heated debate over my deeply personal experience. Like the women in Mark’s salon, I’ve had to navigate the world the best way I can. But as a lawyer and educator I have the tools and resources that other sexual abuse victims may not have.”
“I had no game plan for how I would live in the world after being the subject of such a public display and heated debate over my deeply personal experience.” — Anita Hil
Oct. 11, 1991: Anita F. Hill gives her opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. See full footage of the hearings here.
A GRADUATE OF YALE LAW SCHOOL, Hill was a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s law school when she testified in 1991. On the third day of the hearings, her legal team announced she had passed a lie detector test, lending credibility to her claims. She remained composed throughout her candid testimony, despite the sexually suggestive and explicit nature of the incidents she described and was being questioned about by the male Senators on the committee.
Thomas labeled the hearings “a high tech lynching” and ultimately clinched a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. The Senate voted narrowly 52-48 to confirm him.
The objective analysis of her performance was positive. Although the quick assessment may have been that she lost the battle against Thomas, because of Hill, women won a culture-shifting war. Perceptions were altered and eventually boundaries were set about behavior in the workplace.
“At the time my conversation was for the Senate Judiciary Committee. But, in reality, it was a conversation, it was a testimony for the world to finally come to terms with the reality of the workplace experiences of far too many women. It started that conversation and so I am just grateful to have been a part of the history and to have survived the ordeal,” Hill told The Washington Post recently.
“I am not content to just survive it and leave it behind. I want to make things better for another generation of women and I will continue to do that as long as I can.”
THE CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING Hill’s testimony are back in the news, a generation later. Brett Kavanaugh, a circuit judge on U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, has been nominated to the Supreme Court and Christine Blasey Ford has come forward asserting that he sexually assaulted her, more than three decades ago, when they were both in high school. He was 17 and she was 15, she says.
In this case, the issue is not workplace sexual harassment, but alleged sexual assault in a social setting. Kavanaugh has roundly denied the accusations. The development has delayed and potentially derailed Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
MARK BRADFORD, Installation view of “Raidne,” “Medusa,” and “Thelxiepeia.” | © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White
Lawyers for Ford, a research psychologist in Northern California, have been negotiating with Sen. Chuck Grassley, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, about the timing and conditions under which she will share her experience with the committee. Earlier today, Ford agreed to testify on Wednesday.
Since her allegations were made public, Ford has been harassed via email. According to her attorneys, her email has also been hacked and she’s been impersonated online. Ford is also the target of death threats. Fearing their safety, her family is no longer staying in their home.
Braving an arena where the odds appear stacked against her, Ford’s situation is being compared with that of Hill, who weighed in on the parallels, writing an opinion article in the New York Times this week.
At Brandeis, Hill teaches courses in gender, race, social policy, and legal history. On the subject at hand, she brings lived experience and academic credentials. In the Times she said, “There is no way to redo 1991, but there are ways to do better.” According to Hill, Ford’s claim should be investigated by a neutral investigative body with experience in sexual misconduct cases and the hearings should not be hasty or rushed.
“Today, the public expects better from our government than we got in 1991, when our representatives performed in ways that gave employers permission to mishandle workplace harassment complaints throughout the following decades. That the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement,” Hill said.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has its roots in the entertainment industry, Hill was selected to lead the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, a new initiative designed to “help combat the kind of sexual misconduct that recent revelations have shown to be pervasive in Hollywood.”
Mark Bradford, 2017. | © Mark Bradford. Photo by Carlos Avendaño
FOUR YEARS AGO, Hill and Bradford finally met in person for the first time at the Rose Art Museum on the campus of Brandeis in advance of a public conversation about the artist’s exhibition “Sea Monsters.” In her “Speaking Truth” essay, Hill said Bradford told her about his mother’s salon that day and the defining role the intimate space and family business played in his life and work.
“To say only that the salon was a location that helped shape his career shortchanges both his art and the beauty shop as a cultural site. It was in fact a place of safety and security for the salon’s clientele, as well as for Mark himself, offering a forum for black women seeking to tell the truth about their struggles wth men, children, jobs, and life in general. He saw his clients as women who were ‘trying to navigate life the best way they could.’ For many it was no doubt a place like no other, a space for sharing stories that had no other stage,” Hill said.
“To say only that the salon was a location that helped shape his career shortchanges both his art and the beauty shop as a cultural site. It was in fact a place of safety and security for the salon’s clientele, as well as for Mark himself…” — Anita Hill
The conversation between Bradford and Hill on Oct. 24, 2014, was part of a series of talks about art, blackness, and the diaspora sponsored by the museum and the departments of Fine Arts and African and Afro-American Studies.
A year later, they came together again for a talk at the Hammer Museum, where “Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth,” his first solo museum exhibition in his hometown of Los Angeles, was on view. The discussion on Aug. 2, 2015, focused on interdisciplinary methods for speaking truth to power and how the work and ideas generated by artists can make challenging issues resonate with the larger public and potentially drive real change.
Aug. 2, 2015: Artist Mark Bradford and Professor Anita Hill in conversation at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. | Video screenshot
During the conversation at the Hammer, Hill said to Bradford, “Your art can get actually get us to look at the reality of our experiences and really can influence policy in ways that a number of policy papers and wonks and statistics cannot do.”
Bradford wasn’t entirely convinced, but conceded that artists do have something to say and can contribute to improving communities and broadening opportunities in a sustainable way.
“I don’t know if the painting on the wall is going to influence policy. I think maybe the ideas around the work can influence policy. I think there are artists that mine a very political space and these ideas can influence policy,” Bradford said.
“I think are a lot of interesting things and a lot of interesting ideas that artists are involved it and would just be great if we had sometimes larger arenas to have these ideas put forth. Because I spent so much time in the public sector, aka hair salon, I’m comfortable navigating between the public and the art world. I can go back and forth and even the way I grew up is going back and forth. So I don’t mind this transgressing.”
The artist and professor have continued to collaborate. Her focus on social policy and gender and race issues dovetails with his practice, wherein he “goes back and forth” with one foot in the studio and the other in the community. In 2014 he co-founded Art + Practice, a nonprofit that organizes exhibitions and also provides support, resources, and programming for local foster youth. Hill is on the board of advisors for Art + Practice.
Phaidon published “Mark Bradford” in May. The volume provides a comprehensive survey of his work over the years and includes an interview with the artist conducted by Hill.
Meanwhile, in her essay for the “Tomorrow is Another” Day catalog, Hill masterfully weaves her observations about Bradford’s art and theories about the beauty salon as a safe space for woman and an economic engine in the community, with larger insights about her experience testifying before the Senate and women’s credibility.
“Mark’s art offers both new insights and new points of view that spark my intellectual instincts,” she said. “When Mark pushes the ‘people living on the fringe into the center of the room,’ or offers a glimpse into the way marginalized people experience everyday injustices, or shines light into spaces where uncomfortable truths that ought to be told are indeed spoken out loud, I’m compelled to provide context and explain how policy enables social injustice and how law and policy should respond or at least acknowledge that they often do not.”
Later, she added: “I have often been asked what sexual justice looks like to women, and to black women in particular. The answer begins to reveal itself when we bring our stories out of the private spaces and into the middle of the room, as Mark does with his work.” CT
“Tomorrow is Another Day” opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it will be on view through March 3, 2019
TOP IMAGE: Anita Hill and Mark Bradford. | Courtesy Department of Fine Arts, Brandeis University
“Tomorrow is Another Day” documents Mark Bradford’s solo exhibition for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. In addition to the essay by Anita Hill, the volume includes contributions by Published a few months ago, “Mark Bradford” provides a comprehensive overview of his work and includes a Q&A with Hill. A few books were written about the Hill-Thomas hearings. She penned two of her own—“Speaking Truth to Power” and more recently “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home.”
MARK BRADFORD, “Sea Pig,” 2014 (collage/mixed media, 6 buoys). | Courtesy the artist.
MARK BRADFORD, “Sexy Cash,” 2013 (mixed media collage on weather-proofed board). | The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
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