“Rights Along the Shore” probes the wounds left by segregation at three public swimming areas: Carson Beach in 1975 South Boston; Anacostia Pool in 1949 Washington, D.C.; and Lincoln Beach in New Orleans from 1954 to 1964.
The exhibition at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery is by performance artist Danielle Abrams and video artist Mary Ellen Strom. Abrams died unexpectedly on April 21. She was 54.
She was a beloved teacher at School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, and her loss indelibly colors the exhibition. The clarity, humor, and pathos of her performance in “Watermark,” the show’s central video, adds crucial nuance to a painful story. She made art from the gulfs she experienced in society.
“I’ve spent my life vacillating between white, Jewish, and Black access, privileges, speech, and cultural codes,” Abrams said in a conversation with Gabriel Sosa in Boston Art Review in 2021. “Because of my racial ambiguity, I frequently bear witness to racism and antisemitism. I am grateful for this evidence. It is fodder for my work.”
“Rights Along the Shore” strives to do that, too. In one video, “Alicia Baez and Caitlyn Murphy,” two women in their 30s, one from Roxbury and the other from South Boston, debrief each other on their experiences of racism growing up, and find some healing.
In “Watermark,” a panoramic two-channel video projection, interviews with linguist Jessica Grieser and Ebony Rosemond, executive director of the Maryland nonprofit Black Kids Swim, provide deep context for the minefield of swimming and segregation. Strom intersperses the interviews with documentary photographs, scrolling text, and placid watery backdrops. Rosemond describes violent racist incidents that have taken place near water, such as lynchings at Shubuta Bridge in Shubuta, Miss.
“There’s a history of placing Black bodies of people brutalized and murdered at places where Black people went to enjoy the water,” Rosemond says. “That psychological warfare is going to make people fear and avoid the water.”
Leon Rock, in 1975 a Columbia Point Projects Youth Organizer and adviser to NAACP President Thomas Atkins, narrates the story of Carson Beach, where Black people held a protest picnic to assert their right to access public spaces. A riot broke out after white counterprotestors started shouting and lobbing projectiles such as stones and bricks at them.
Abrams, by turns compassionate and defiant, narrates the segment about Lincoln Beach, a recreation area where Black people swam. In a stunning sequence, she dons a swimsuit and bathing cap and sits beside a projection of a group photo, which Strom animates — a girl kicks her leg, and Abrams does, too. There’s a sense of being stopped in time.
And perhaps we are. “Rights Along the Shore” poetically witnesses 20th-century racism as a backdrop to today. Abrams embodied the schism of racism in her art. May her students carry her legacy forward.
RIGHTS ALONG THE SHORE: Danielle Abrams and Mary Ellen Strom
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through May 28. www.bostonarts.org