By Joe Nolan
The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was one of the “alphabet agencies” created under the banner of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in the 1930s. The government-sponsored corporation created a system of color-coded maps in an effort to encourage expanded home ownership in metropolitan areas. The stated purpose of the maps was to highlight the best areas in a community for owners to buy into, and – even more importantly – for banks to write loans for and developers to build in. In actuality the maps were colored by racism, and the practices they underpinned created impacts far beyond inequalities in home ownership and generational wealth.
Omari Booker’s Red Line at Channel to Channel in Nashville is a painterly exploration of the history and the legacy of redlining that aims beyond coded maps and federal policies to record the cultural and even psychological segregation inspired by those original maps and the practices they encouraged. Booker’s Red Line title separates the compound “redlining” terminology and points to the signature trope of these works: the use of lengths of red-painted razor wire as a framing device that confines images to particular spaces on the surface of these painted panels.
Booker is a black painter associated with North Nashville’s art scene which is strongly connected with HBCU schools like Tennessee State University and Fisk University that are the cultural center of that neighborhood. Booker is a Nashville native and a TSU alum, and another large work from his Red Line series is currently showing in the Murals of North Nashville Now exhibition at the Frist Art Museum.
Booker’s exploration of redlining might have focused only on the historically black community of North Nashville, but this exhibition is more ambitious and curious and thoughtful than that. The first painting in the show borrows the image of an American Indian from the NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The portrait is surrounded by a circle of red-painted razor wire that is attached to the panel. It’s a visually striking piece to kick off the show, but it also broadens the understanding of redlining policies that discriminated against most people of color including Native Americans. Booker’s Redskin titling makes the breadth of the discrimination even more explicit.
White-skinned people almost always benefited from the maps and the practices they encouraged. In the mid-20th century, working class whites could often get home loans in areas where even well-to-do blacks could not. Green Line pictures a creamy pink decagonal form surrounded by a field of dark chocolate brown. The pink form is surrounded by a thin green border. In the federal housing maps, green borders denoted favorable areas where home ownership, bank loans and development were most strongly encouraged. Booker’s approach here is strictly abstract, but the work clearly communicates the show’s themes of segregation and inequality.
The housing maps affected where and how people were allowed to live and work and raise their families, but they also encouraged even more insidious practices such as the creation of food deserts in communities without access to fresh produce and groceries, and the practice of reverse redlining where communities of color were targeted for inflated loan services, liquor stores, fast food franchises and even for-profit higher education. Booker captures the culture-wide impact of the discrimination in works like Hip Hop Saved Me, which pictures a record on a turntable – the black vinyl is surrounded by Booker’s red razor wire. Do You Play Basketball? pictures a basketball with Booker’s red razor wire tracing it’s circumference and seams. These works remind us that red lining wasn’t just an effort to suppress and segregate people of color; its impacts created cultural segregation as well.
Red Line offers an iconography of socioeconomic suppression that connects American history to pop culture from the genocide of Native Americans to a remix of the Wendy’s restaurant logo. It’s a show that says a lot with a little – there are only eight painted panels in the Channel to Channel exhibition – and it’s an exhibition that examines the present as a reflection of the past.
Omari Booker’s Red Line exhibition is on display at Channel to Channel in Nashville, Tennessee from November 2 to December 14, 2019.
Joe Nolan is an intermedia artist based in Nashville, TN. He writes about art and film for Nashville Scene, Burnaway and more.