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Color-conscious

Race translates into an art of obsession this fall

Americans are used to talking about race in certain, circumscribed, highly specific ways. We talk about race when national crises dictate it — such as when Hurricane Katrina or O.J. spike the cultural EKG, or when it's on the collective dinner plate a la Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month.

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Then race tends to go back underground, a wound that, despite being bandaged, never quite heals. But race proves a dominant theme — sometimes overt, sometimes only implied — in a number of exhibitions in Atlanta this fall.

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The most obvious explosion of race as an interwoven, undeniable part of the City Too Busy to Hate's social fabric is the anniversary on Sept. 22 of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, a four-day melee that ended in the deaths of dozens of black Atlantans.

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The riots are commemorated in a number of exhibitions that echo the similar buzz six years ago when local collector James Allen published his photographic documents of lynching, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Several Atlanta institutions followed up the book's publication with their own exhibitions on the theme of lynching. Two of the most prominent, Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery (through Sept. 30) and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site (through August 2007) will also devote fall exhibitions to the Atlanta Race Riot.

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While Southerners once again mull over the still-present legacy of slavery and segregation, there are other reminders with these exhibitions that race is not a concept that can be trucked out with anniversaries and dedications. Race still drives the undercurrent of our daily lives, as well as politics, economy and perceptions of the world.

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One of the most subtle, but nevertheless mind-altering of those exhibitions, is Dutch artist Ruud Van Empel's show at Jackson Fine Art, titled simply World (through Nov. 4), which makes the provocative assertion that black, and not white, children are at the center of the world. Van Empel's Edenic photographs lend his subjects — captured amid a green, bug-and-critter-filled paradise — a gravity and sublime singularity. This stands in stark contrast to a world that is more often used to seeing children rendered as a faceless, undifferentiated mass.

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Slyly affirmative in its link of that loaded word "black" with innocence, romance and fragility, the photos only serve to highlight how rarely those qualities are associated with images of black subjects in photography.

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One of the fall movie season's more explicit treatments of race will be director Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, due in Atlanta theaters Oct. 20. A heavily fictionalized account of the bloody reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the story is told through the eyes of a white Scottish doctor who becomes Amin's personal physician and finds his dreams of adventure in Africa shape-shifting into grind-house horror. A film that only serves to reassert Africa as a nightmare "other" that white folk would be best advised to quickly exit, The Last King of Scotland posits one, fearful view of Africa in an age when the West's eyes remain fixed on the miasma of conflict in the region. But the aid workers of Doctors Without Borders take the opposite tack and plunge headfirst into Africa's worst violence, ministering to the world's most neglected people.

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One of the most powerful assertions of how easily race can be denied, and the disastrous consequences when the West gauges conflict by color, appears in the emotionally powerful photography exhibition Democratic Republic of the Congo: Forgotten War (through Oct. 7) at the Atlanta Photography Group. The show documents the unprecedented and enormous scale of an ongoing civil war in the Congo that has thus far claimed some 3 million to 4 million lives in the past seven years.

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The photographs are culled from the work of five members of the VII Photo Agency who have spent years documenting genocide, wars and crimes against humanity around the world. But this survey focuses on the peculiar devastation of the Congo in photography that records in heartbreaking detail children's funerals, babies suffering from malnutrition and 70-year-old rape victims, among the many casualties of that conflict.

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Africa, in the media's imagination, often has been a story of a black population so enormous that rescue can seem impossible. But exhibitions like Forgotten War make people who have been reduced to remote abstractions into singular individuals and victims of very real violence. In another Doctors Without Borders-sponsored event slated for Sept. 27-Oct. 1 in Piedmont Park, the traveling, interactive tent city A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City allows visitors to experience firsthand the plight of 33 million people around the world living as refugees.

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As much advocacy as documentation and commemoration, exhibitions like the ones commemorating the Atlanta Race Riot or the work of Doctors Without Borders remind us of the necessity of thinking about race more often, both locally and nationally.



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