The World Keeps Turning with Columnist Allen Woods: An artist responds to insurrection

  • This painting by Dr. Imo NseImeh was inspired by the death of Ashli Babbit in the Jan. 6 riots. The title, “and i’ll be there with you,” is taken from Donald Trump’s speech to the crowd that day. IMAGE COURTESY OF DR. IMO NSE IMEH

Published: 1/28/2022 11:20:40 AM
Modified: 1/28/2022 11:19:22 AM

” . . . more often than not, art is a disruptive form, that serves as a tool for changing existing political and social realities.” InnaDidenko, artist.

On Jan. 15, 2022, the 93rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, I drove down from I-91 over the canal in Holyoke to view what I believe is a historic, artist’s work-in-progress by Dr. Imo NseImeh at Pulp gallery. Engendered by the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S Capitol, I came away forcefully moved, appreciative, and slightly disrupted.

Dr. Imeh identifies himself ( as an artist, “scholar of African Diaspora art,” and in the essay “The Hope of Radiance,” “a Black Christian man” who “cannot unsee” the naked hatred and violence of that day, including the powerful symbols of a Christian cross and a gallows for lynching. These images pile on top of the videos of George Floyd being “slowly suffocated to death” and the execution of unarmed Ahmed Arbery and others: the lack of a strong response from many White Christian faith leaders brought Imeh to the brink of “spiritual homelessness.”

Large, powerful images (most 7-by7-foot’ or more) in a smallish room created countless personal impressions and responses: I can provide some limited description of two. First is the historical context: the classic and immaculate construction our Capitol building and White House were largely performed by slaves, rented by the U.S government.

Imeh reminds us of this fact (or enlightens us for the first time) by using the vivid, imagined faces of slaves as the ground beneath the Capitol area. It is a great irony and blind spot for many White Americans: even the founding and creation of a nation with aspirations of “liberty and justice for all” was entirely dependent on, and accepting of, the poisonous institution of slavery.

The second is the overarching, conflicted response by true Christians to the tragedies unleashed by the lies of Donald Trump. Imeh makes his response visual in the panel “and i’ll be there with you,” the only image in the exhibit with a splash of color beyond black and white. The title is the final great lie told that day by Donald Trump, leading to the death of Army veteran Ashli Babbitt, among others. Imeh poses her body gracefully, as Jesus’s in Michelangelo’s sculpture Pieta, but explains in his notes that he does not see her as a martyr and does not sympathize with her or her cause “even in the slightest.” Her death is a tragedy: her sacrifice is “hollow” because it is “based in lies.”

But, as a Christian, he does “pity her” in her “self-destruction” that has been ”ennabled” by Trump and others, a symbol demonstrating “the conundrum of the Capitol Riots.” Brought up as a Christian myself, I have often agonized over the contradictory Biblical maxims of the Old Testament “an eye for an eye” and the New Testament “turn the other cheek,” embodied by leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela, and MLK Jr.

I have repeatedly questioned the wisdom and efficacy of nonviolence; marveled and wondered at the ability of religious family members to forgive those responsible for the death of loved ones, such as those who spoke in court to Dylann Roof after he massacred nine Black people in a church in South Carolina.

In my mind, Imeh’s image of Babbit, dead from the riots, and the Black faces dead or haunted by the White supremacy at the crux of the movement, prove that “weeping can be converted into protest,” as he hopes.

The national media narrative is that America has faced a “reckoning” on institutional racism. One definition of reckoning is “the calculation or estimation of the amount of something.” Others include some action to address the issue. I think the first is most applicable, since efforts at addressing it have sparked harsh and concerted backlash: banning books, attacking critical race theory, and widespread efforts at bringing voting rights back to the days of Jim Crow.

Combining his visual art with words, Imeh does not just want acknowledgement of our individual and societal racial issues. He wants us “to thrive” as a part of a “healthy body politic” that is “not limited to one kind or group of people.” He does not believe we should “settle for anything less than the abundance that awaits us all in this lifetime.”

I encourage you to view his works in person at Pulp in Holyoke until Feb. 6, or online at his website or the gallery’s

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era crime novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at


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