It’s a chilly January night at UNT on the Square, and dozens of art fans, film festival leaders and curious passersby have huddled closely around one man: a seasoned Fort Worth artist whose mixed media exhibitions have drawn rave reviews across the metroplex.
Fort Worth’s Christopher Blay is the featured artist at this year’s Denton Black Film Festival. Wednesday saw a showcase of his artwork (which can be seen through February 3) during the opening reception for this year’s festival. However, while though the crowd was eager to absorb his every word, his name is not the only one on the tips of everyone’s tongue. Instead, it is the names of the fallen and the forgotten – young African American men who have lost their lives in altercations with police officers over the last two decades – that dominate the topics of conversation between friends, both old and new.
Through this chilling exhibition, Blay reflects on the grief, anxiety and frustration caused by these incidents and others. Blay uses drawings, photographs and video to create KWTXR: a work of fantasy in which the character KaraWalkerTexasRanger travels through time to reverse the outcomes of these victims’ confrontations with police.
The artist has been working on this project for more than three years, and conversations with last year’s DBFF featured artist, Annette Lawrence, helped him develop the show into the surreal memoriam it is today. It also continues a unique tradition started by Bray: merging a pop culture icon with a famous artist – in this case, esteemed painter Kara Walker and the legendary Chuck Norris character Walker, Texas Ranger. Much of the inspiration for KWTXR came from the artist’s own reaction to these horrific, recurring crimes.
Blay remembers watching the coverage of the Eric Garner chokehold death while working as an artist-in-residence at the prestigious Centraltrak gallery in Dallas. The piece started to come to life as he reflected on the grieving mothers he’d see on TV.
“I was moved by these women who would invariably have to go on television to talk about what happened to their sons,” the artist said in an interview before the opening reception. The exhibition grew to include seven men who have all had their lives snatched from them by police sometime between now and the mid-1990s.
In front of the packed house at UNT on the Square, Blay discussed how KWTXR is a “liturgical presentation, like you would see in a stained-glass window”, honoring the lives of saints. “This space is a place of reflection,” he tells the crowd. “And these moments represent a greater thing happening.”
Like much of the work at this year’s festival, Blay’s exhibition grapples with themes of oppression, justice and the lack thereof. Throughout the reception, the celebrated and innovative artist referred to his work as that of an “artist as witness.”
That means that he’s in pretty good company at this year’s festival.