“Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.” — bell hooks
Surveillance is nothing new to Black folks. It is a fact of anti-Blackness.
Rather than situating surveillance as a post-9/11 phenomenon or as something inaugurated by new technologies—such as automated facial recognition, Pegasus spyware, hidden AirTags that can track people and property, Ring video doorbells, body scanners at airports, and voice-controlled digital assistants like Alexa and Siri—to see surveillance as a fact of anti-Blackness, is to insist that we understand how its histories shape our present moment. These histories include the racial apartheid of Jim Crow, sundown towns, and lantern laws, as well as the inventive ways fugitives, outlaws, abolitionists, and their accomplices worked to undermine the technologies of slavery and its afterlife. Of course, this is not the entire story of surveillance, but it is a part that often escapes notice. It is from that understanding that we can come to reshape our collective futures.
Not Only Will I Stare draws attention to the interventions made by artists whose works explore the surveillance of Black life. From policing and incarceration to profiling and algorithmic racism, surveillance permeates Black worlds and undermines Black resistance. Exemplary of this history is the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which ran from 1956 to 1971 and sought to disrupt, discredit, and destroy individuals, activists, and political organizations it deemed subversive, like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X.
When it comes to troubling surveillance and its various methodologies, these five artists—American Artist, Sadie Barnette, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Sable Elyse Smith, and Ricky Weaver—employ strategies of invention, disruption, refusal, and care. Whether through sculpture, etched Plexiglas, Xerox-based collage, archival portraiture, video, or powdered graphite drawings, the works in this exhibition distill the productive possibilities of creative innovation and of imagining Black life beyond the surveillance state.
This exhibition’s title is borrowed from a line in the essay “The Oppositional Gaze” by the late poet, professor, and Black feminist writer bell hooks, from her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation. In that essay, hooks examines the role of Black spectatorship, the violent ways in which Black people are denied the right to look, the meaningfulness of counter-memory, and the critical practice of Black women’s rebellious gazes as “a way to know the present and invent the future.”
— Dr. Simone Browne, Curator
Not Only Will I Stare is curated by Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor in African and African Diaspora at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which presents a case to consider race and blackness as central to the field of surveillance studies, and investigates the roots of present-day surveillance in practices originating in slavery and the Jim Crow era.