Police detained entertainer John Sims without warning in the middle of the night. He regains his power with a new body of work
At around 2 a.m. last week, multidisciplinary artist John C. Sims was awakened by the sound of intruders storming his home.
Sims quickly grabbed his phone to call 911, jumping into the bathroom of his apartment, the one reserved for the artist-in-residence at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia, South Carolina. The Sims Personal Show, “AfroDixia: a just confiscation“, was in the adjacent building and features deconstructed, distorted and reimagined displays of Confederate symbols, including a lynching of the Confederate flag.
As an artist showing a body of work in the South centered on a critique of revisionist historical materials, Sims immediately feared that “a white supremacist mob or the KKK had come for my life,” I was told. he says on Zoom this week. “I didn’t want to disappear into an underground torture chamber.”
When the intruders turned out to be cops, the Sims had to switch gears. He was brought back to the survival lesson of his mother and all black mothers. He was praying that the noisy heater didn’t ring loud enough to suggest he had a gun.
After multiple demands for an explanation and multiple attempts to identify himself as the artist-in-residence, he was grabbed, handcuffed and held for almost eight minutes. “Why are you here?” asked an officer.
For the Sims, this question was particularly heartbreaking. “Black people are always on the defensive when you want to take up space. ‘Why are you here?’ they ask you, ‘What authorizes YOU to do and say what you do?’
After the police executed his permit, confirmed that he was in fact the artist-in-residence and freed him from handcuffs, he felt the pendulum swing in his favor. He was lucky to be alive when the alternative could have been a death marred by a media narrative suggesting he asked for trouble by staging a disrespectful Confederate flag show in South Carolina.
Before the police left, he took a picture of their police cars through the window. Immediately he felt called to tap into his creative self – time was of the essence. He needed to translate his experience into art in order to claim the narrative before his voice was drowned out.
The result is a new body of work that has already begun to take shape under the title “A Near Death Residency: Reflections of a Black Artist/Space, 2021”. So far, it consists of two parts: the only photo he was allowed to take as documentation of what happened on May 17, 2021, and a Artist Report which he wrote in response to the official police incident report. This narrative will also serve as the basis for a future film, a dramatic re-enactment meant to subvert the format of the villainous cop show.
Sims’ booming laughter echoed through my speakers as we talked. “The police can beat my ass, but once I’ve been denied the opportunity to say my story, my trauma from the way they beat my ass? he said. “If you crush people at this level, you don’t have democracy. You cannot have a democracy. If people don’t have the space to express their own voice, that’s proof of the American sham.
The police department hurry Release recounted a “police-citizen encounter” in which officers “noticed an open door on the side of a building that is normally locked.” They entered with firearms drawn, the statement said, and “repeatedly identified themselves” as they pursued steps to the second floor of the building, where they placed “the man … handcuffed to determine why he was there.” was in the building”.
Sims’ response to the police statement, which he wrote hours after the intrusion, reclaims his personality and respect by replacing the sanitized label of “citizen” with Artist Sims. “I emulate the energy” of the original report, he explained. “I say, ‘You will be respect me.'”
The document is designed like the one released by authorities, with his artist logo “John Sims Projects” in place of the Columbia Police Department emblem and a file number 3.14159265 (pi to eight decimal places), a number that Sims has used in his art for years.
In the official incident report, the Columbia police chief referred to the supervising officer’s refusal to allow Sims to take a photo of the cops at his home as “the only faux pas” committed by law enforcement. order that night. Sims is determined to turn the police department’s reductive claim of “responsibility” into indelible work.
The artist sees a clear line between his show, “AfroDixia,” which involves remixing Confederate artifacts, and his new series, which comes out of a desire to drain law enforcement, which he calls the “cousins” of the KKK, of their power to intimidate, smear and subjugate black people, depriving them of all freedom of action.
“I’m sure there were a lot of people who thought I would shut up and just be an artist,” Sims said. Instead, he plans to start work on the next chapter: a film that brings together what happened to him, the meaning of his art, and the precarious nature of his life as a black artist.
“Writing paints the pictures and brings the bullets,” he said. “The film will create warmth and drama around the limits of our sense of respect and respectability.”
The anniversary of George Floyd’s death has passed, along with calls for community reconciliation after John Sims’ encounter with police. Since the incident, the 701 Center has invited the mayor of the city of Columbia, the chief of police and members of the city council to Sims’ “AfroDixia,” which now radiates increased significance.
In a statement released May 28, the 701 Center noted that “this is not the first time a resident of…the 701 Whaley Street building has encountered a law enforcement officer searching the premises at the search for a possible intruder. But it was the first time, the statement noted, that “such an encounter had led to a hostile confrontation, detention, handcuffs and a check of records.”
While previous encounters “resulted in courteous apologies from officers,” there was one key difference: “Mr. Sims is a black male; the other incidents involved a white male.
Earlier this week, while showing the mayor, a black man, Stephen K. Benjamin, around the gallery space, Sims was assured that he could address the city council directly on Tuesday, June 1.
At the meeting, Sims will read his artist report to the city council and representatives of community organizations who have pledged their support, including Black Lives Matter South Carolina and the National Action Network.
The reading will serve as the next phase of the “Near Death Residency” project, continuing the act of blending art with life, an artistic foray that Sims says was prompted by the cosmic combination of “AfroDixia,” his residence, the southern city with its cotton spinning grounds, and the police, all actors in a production whose life prepares the ground.
“I couldn’t have planned this,” he said. “Experience is now part of the job.”
Read The Sims Artist Report in full below.
To follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.