Focus On: Zora J Murff
Zora J Murff’s series At No Point in Between is a slow burn of a project. Based in the historically Black neighborhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, his portraits, landscape images, and found photographs build upon each other to form a quietly devastating indictment of the multiple ways that violence is inflicted on Black communities.
There are references to specific violent incidents, like the lynching of Will Brown in 1919 or the murder of Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old girl killed by a police officer in 1969, both in Omaha, Nebraska. In a found photograph of Brown’s body being burned, Murff focuses on the group of 30-plus white men who gathered to watch, grinning shamelessly for the camera, claiming their white privilege and white power. By shifting the focus away from the victim and onto the crowd of white men, Murff foregrounds the social purposes of lynching photographs, which were taken and disseminated with intent: to terrorize Black people and assert white supremacy.
The photographs in Murff’s series speak to each other, making connections between these murders – “fast violence,” in the terminology of scholar Rob Nixon, whose book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor influenced Murff – and what Nixon terms the “slow violence” of things like pollution, disenfranchisement, and redlining (the practice of banks discriminating against Black neighborhoods by refusing to invest in them). “What is the difference between a person being lynched, a teenager being shot 16 times, and the redlining of a neighborhood,” asks Murff, the recipient of the inaugural Next Step Award from Aperture and Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, whose work is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through November 12 in the online exhibition Companion Pieces: New Photography 2020. “All of those brutal incidents have the same purpose – the eradication of Black life.” Murff’s own photographs include both color and black-and-white pictures, a visual cue that the there’s a direct line from historical oppression to its contemporary manifestations. The highway in one aerial view was originally meant to be built through a white neighborhood in Omaha; predictably, it wound up being built through the Black neighborhood of North Omaha, displacing residents and breaking up communities.
Murff walks his viewers through that neighborhood, offering images of beauty and neglect, often in the same photograph. He introduces a group of five young people, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, in shorts and t-shirts on a warm day: it could be a portrait of a lazy summer day but for the police car nosing into the right side of the image, or the burned-out house in the background. The haphazard geometry of textures and materials in his photograph of a boarded-up building is punctuated by the red hand of a stop light on the corner, and a No Parking sign nearby that repeats the message of “no.” No walking, no parking, no housing, no services, no protection. The stop-sign hand is echoed in an archival newspaper photograph of a group of new police officers, all being sworn in with their hands raised. Amid the archival images and photographs of highways and buildings and overgrown basketball courts, there are Murff’s portraits. Tender, intimate, and familiar, they grew out of Murff’s conviction that “we need to acknowledge each other, because largely this world doesn’t acknowledge us.” Murff names his subjects, and those portraits ground the project, serving as reminders of the individuals affected by decades of violence and discriminatory policies – friends and families, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons.