Stories That Must be Told

SCPA alumnus explores black-on-black violence in Freedom Center exhibit

click to enlarge James Pate's 'Your History II' is part of the 'Kin Killin’ Kin' exhibit at the Freedom Center.
James Pate's 'Your History II' is part of the 'Kin Killin’ Kin' exhibit at the Freedom Center.


here’s no denying that violence in the African-American community has been a hot-button issue the last few years, with American media coverage increasing constantly. But while that often relates to police, James Pate has spent years responding to the epidemic of black-on-black violence.

The recent national conversation has only fueled the artist’s creative energy, and Kin Killin’ Kin is the product of a drive to effect change. This collection of charcoal sketches that opened on Nov. 14 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the second in a series of exhibits addressing “stories that must be told.” Mascots, which explores the use of American Indians as mascots in athletics and cultural appropriation, opened Nov. 7.

Kin Killin’ Kin draws parallels between inner-city youth gang violence and the terrorism perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan, the notorious white supremacy group. Although the familiar ghostly organization is usually associated with the South and the Jim Crow days post-Civil War to the 1960s, its influence is still felt all over the country, and even today the group operates vocally.

The exhibit at the Freedom Center is organized by SHANGO: Center for the Study of African American Art and Culture and EbonNia Gallery and is accompanied by memorabilia such as real KKK uniforms. The drawings are in a “Techno-Cubist” style, Pate’s self-described term of distorting realty with exaggeration, shade, contrast, dynamic shapes and skewed angles. It’s very modern in its appeal, bringing to mind cinematic storyboards and graphic novels.

Pate grew up in the Queen City but now lives in Dayton, Ohio. He attended Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, graduating with its first class, and started Kin Killin’ Kin as private petitions 15 years ago. His black-and-white works evolved into a means of “tapping into the creative minds of young people,” he says, especially in the last four years.

This series spun out of conversations in Pate’s community. In the beginning he told himself he would keep creating new pieces for the exhibit until the violence ended. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to pass, and if anything it has only become more rampant.

Each of Pate’s iconic images portrays choices that lead to violent acts and their consequences in vivid detail. It is Pate’s intent to span generational differences, and with that in mind, he juxtaposes references not only to the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but also to African tribal motifs.

He does point out that his work isn’t directly connected to the Black Lives Matter movement that sprung up in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo. “It’s a compliment and a complement,” Pate says. “It’s related and an extension.” But he specifically wants to draw attention to problems with young people killing one another. “We got calls from Ferguson,” says curator Willis Bing Davis, “but we’re just another component of the struggle.”

Davis thinks that not just young people but those of all ages can be “agents of change,” and points out that nurses, clergymen, boys and girls clubs — just about anyone — can make a difference. “It’s an accumulation of things,” he says, and points to musicians in particular as fellow artists with a social responsibility.

Hip Hop is a prominent part of the show, with interspersed images of young black men wearing familiar KKK costumes, Civil Rights iconography and the ubiquitous handgun. “Music is vital,” Davis says. “We’re not attacking the form; we’re attacking the lyrics.” He points out the intrinsic African connection in the sound of Hip Hop.

Pate clarifies that he’s not anti-Hip Hop, but he’s against its rampant distribution. “It can brainwash with its raunchiness,”
he says, “but everybody has to take a look at what really matters.”

That’s the responsibility of the artist, he believes. Pate’s hope in the long run is that his exhibit may not only get people talking but also actually light a fire in young people, influencing children that see his exhibit before they even start down a dark path.

Traveling across the country for four years, Pate has gotten to see his influence firsthand. It all started in Dayton in 2011 where Kin Killin’ Kin was so well-received that after 12 months, it opened a national tour at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. This led to a spoken-word artist performing with the exhibit in Atlanta and a dance team creating an original piece in Sarasota, Fla. in response.

This national acclaim is what led the Freedom Center and Dr. Michael Battle, NURFC’s executive vice president/provost, to invite the exhibit to Cincinnati. They sought out Kin Killin’ Kin for many reasons, including Pate’s ties to Cincinnati. “It resonates with the community,” Battle says, although he admits this is difficult subject matter. “It is a museum’s responsibility to focus on non-threatening means to provoke conversation and move communities forward,” he says.

Multiple events will take place with the exhibit as a centerpiece. Two upcoming events include The Youth Think Tank on Jan. 16, featuring a youth leadership forum in partnership with Queen City Foundation that will discuss matters of violence and conflict resolution, and The Solutions Symposium on Feb. 4, with a discussion moderated by James Pilcher of The Cincinnati Enquirer that will reflect on this year’s violence and promote positive solutions to build safer communities.

Kin Killin’ Kin moves on to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., after it closes here Feb. 13. As for projects that Pate has planned in his future, he hypothesizes ideas influenced by the aforementioned events taking place with the black community and the police. “That artistically relates to my next piece,” he says, “which could depict police-on-police violence, and actually have these brothers helping them out.”

KIN KILLIN’ KIN is on display in the Freedom Center’s Everyday Freedom Heroes Gallery through Feb. 13. More info:

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