Paul Rucker Makes Colorful Klan Robes to Fight Racism

The activist-artist takes a historical, artifact-based view of American racism yesterday and today.

In the 1920s, a factory in Atlanta, GA, kept 20,000 KKK robes on hand to keep up with demand. Rucker reinterprets them in different fabrics in "Birth of a Nation," a 2015 version of "Storm in a Time of Shelter." Photo: Ryan Stevenson.

Baltimore-based, multi-media artist Paul Rucker is on a mission. With “Storm in the Time of Shelter,” his installation at the newly opened Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond, VA, he aims to show the Ku Klux Klan is not a shameful relic from a distant, racist past, but a harmful force that still has a systemic impact on US society and institutions.

Artist Paul Rucker, photographed for the Best of Baltimore feature in Baltimore Magazine, June 18, 2015. Photo: Mike Morgan.

With hate groups more visible lately and nativist rants spewed all too frequently, Rucker is being recognized for sounding a warning about a toxin that has long tainted American culture. In 2017 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; he has also been named the first artist-in-residence at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. A TED talk on his work will be released on June 26. A musician who plays double bass and cello, as well as a composer, he is also working on a commission for the Richmond Symphony.

Rucker’s confrontational, activist art fits right in at the ICA. “You belong here,” declares a 2013 sculpture in pink neon script by Tavares Strachan on the ICA roof. Visible to both the campus of the ICA’s parent Virginia Commonwealth University and to the busy streetscape of the city, its welcoming message of “y’all-come” is intentional. The institute, as interim director Joseph H. Seipel said in a recent interview, embodies VCU’s “priorities of community engagement and inclusiveness.” The building opens on two sides — to both community and campus — in a bid to overcome town-gown divisions.

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The inaugural exhibition, “Declaration,” fits the non-collecting institution’s goal of actively challenging visitors. On view through Sept. 9, it nudges viewers to grapple with pressing socio-political issues. Chief curator Stephanie Smith, whose past focus has been socially engaged art, chose artists who address a broad range of hot-button issues but whose approach is subtle and conceptual rather than didactic. When asked if art has the power to transform thoughts and actions, Smith told me, “Art by itself can’t change the world. But art can be a catalyst for conversations to happen and intellectual or emotional experiences that can open us up.”

The Ku Klux Klan robe was intended to disguise the wearer and be intimidating. “Birth of a Nation” by Paul Rucker,” 2015. Photo: Ryan Stevenson

Rucker’s Storm in the Time of Shelter (2018) pries open viewers’ minds by throwing open the Pandora’s box that is the ongoing legacy of slavery. His installation includes 52 life-size mannequins representing Klansmen garbed in gorgeous fabrics of satin, camouflage or Kente cloth. With their towering hoods and flowing robes, the figures are beautiful, intimidating and sinister. The patterned fabrics, Rucker told me, “normalize” the figures, suggesting they’re not exotic aliens but could be our neighbors in disguise. He said he wanted to share what he learned about the Klan’s ideology “because its influence continues — sewn into the very fabric of White American culture.”

Klan ideology is “sewn into the fabric of White American culture.”

Indeed, the mannequins attracted the most intense scrutiny from visitors at the ICA opening in April. “I wanted to make art that made others feel its power,” Rucker said, referring to the frightening image of the Klan robe, which members called a “glory suit.” Placed at the rear of the first-floor gallery, the installation isn’t visible through a large window that allows the public to see other art works inside — probably to shield passersby from shock. Prior versions of the installation have, in fact, been deemed too controversial to allow the public to enter. In 2017, York College of Pennsylvania closed Rucker’s show to the public, only allowing students and invited guests to view it. An armed guard was on duty when the mannequins were displayed.

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Branding iron used on a 14-year-old slave named Peter for killing his owner. Photo: North Carolina Museum of History.

Vitrines, placed beside the installation, present historical artifacts like a 19th-century branding iron used to mark slaves and R.W. Shufeldt, M.D.’s 1907 eugenicist screed The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization. Rucker’s research-based practice raises awareness of a revitalized Klan, especially relevant in Richmond, VA, the seat of the Confederacy and a one-hour drive from last year’s “Unite the Right” white supremacist march in Charlottesville.

The installation includes a free, 18-page broadsheet with horrifying background information about the artifacts and their use in spreading fear and hatred. Rucker, an artist-in-residence at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), engages visitors in dialogue and has distributed more than 40,000 free copies of his newspaper over the past three years. The paper makes clear the Klan’s role in perpetuating the after-effects of slavery. Bigotry, Rucker argues in his upcoming TED talk, isn’t just a fading residue of unenlightened racism but rears its ugly head today in “stealth” forms, such as police brutality towards minorities; segregated schools, neighborhoods and workplaces; the disproportionate incarceration rate of minorities; and environmental racism.

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The first volume of the publication (subsequent editions will contain more background information) documents the history of the Klan’s racism. Reading it is appalling and alarming, especially considering the atmosphere of racial and ethnic polarization today. The explanatory material has frightening echoes of politics in the Trump era.

As one example of history repeating itself, Rucker notes that during the first outbreak of the Klan during 1860s Reconstruction in the American South, vigilantes, disguised by their hoods, aimed to restore white supremacy, curb education and economic opportunities for blacks and prevent blacks from voting. Today’s manifestations: segregated schools, job discrimination, voter suppression and gerrymandering.

Massive KKK parade in Washington, DC, in 1925. Photo: Library of Congress.

The archival material also deals with the Klan’s second stage in the 1920s, when it adopted cross burnings for intimidation and mass parades (shades of Charlottesville), hoping to recruit white Protestants by preaching “One Hundred Percent Americanism” — or, as the publications of the time put it, “America First.”  The organization claimed a membership of four to five million men. Anti-black, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, it exploited nativist fears of white Protestant Americans that immigrants would usurp their jobs and social status (like today’s xenophobia) .

After the Civil Rights legislation of the 1950s and ’60s, the Klan turned to opposing desegregation of schools and affirmative action. Today, its ideology takes the form of alt-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric, with perhaps 150 Klan chapters and 5,000 members. Trump’s election heartened those members, with former Grand Wizard David Duke tweeting “Make no mistake about it. Our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump.” Duke called the Charlottesville march a “turning point” for Trump’s vision for America, saying, “We are determined to take our country back” and tweeting “Thank God for Trump!” Chillingly, a 1923 Klan bulletin, The Outlook, bragged of its effectiveness in electing mayors, sheriffs, judges, governors, US Representatives and Senators, saying, “It is reaching for the Presidency.”

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As for wall-building, a statement after a 1923 Grand Wizards meeting noted “no danger is greater” than “masses of ignorant, superstitious” immigrants coming “within our borders,” rendering the country “polyglot” and un-American. In a case of dejà vu all over again, the Imperial Wizard at the time, Hiram W. Evans, like Trump, supported immigrants he considered “Nordic.”

Detail of mannequins in reinterpreted KKK robes. Photo: Carol Strickland.

In an interview, VCU’s Dean of the School of the Arts, Shawn Brixey, said “The arts have come out of this luminous history in the Beaux-Arts, atelier tradition” to be part of “the culture of innovation.” By encouraging community participation and active involvement rather than passive appreciation, the arts can be “more than a show pony or jewel in the crown.” His comments apply to Rucker’s goal of stimulating dialogue to explore significant issues, increase understanding and inspire new narratives on art and society. “Artists can create objects, images, experiences and performances that feed the soul and also serve society.”

Rucker is an example of a socially engaged artist who illuminates sordid elements of our past to educate the public and improve the present. His art is a potential antidote to William Faulkner’s statement in Go Down, Moses: “There is no such thing as was — only is.” Rucker has said he envisions placing a sign at the exit to his exhibition saying, “You Might Be Disturbed by Images Beyond this Point.” As unsettling as his fictive parade of hooded Klansmen is, the reality of unleashed bigotry abroad in our country is more disturbing.