ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Jeremy Dean calls himself a “blue-collar artist,” and the name fits.
Though he holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Flagler College and has worked as a professional artist for 20 years, Dean’s work is purposeful, fact-based and principled -- the antithesis of "art for art’s sake.”
Dean got his start as a professional artist with the 2006 documentary “Dare Not Walk Alone,” which documented for the first time St. Augustine’s bloody and contentious Civil Rights struggle. The film used archival video to tell the city’s history, and contemporary interviews to show its throughline.
Other films have since tackled the same topic, but Dean's movie was a landmark and galvanizing moment, the first time a city that openly celebrates its Spanish Colonial history was forced to reckon with a more recent, more relevant and much darker chapter.
"It wasn't the film St. Augustine wanted, but it was the film St. Augustine needed," Dean said in a recent interview. "People have told me that that was like a galvanizing moment when the film was played, it was like a shock to the system."
In Dean's most high-profile art project to date, he transformed a Hummer into a horse-drawn stagecoach and drove it through Central Park.
Now Dean is back in Florida with an exhibit that returns his focus to Northeast Florida’s not-so-distant past and not-so-different present.
"At this show, you'll see stereoview photographs, which are some of the earliest known images of African Americans in Northeast Florida. And those are placed on pieces of the Confederate monument that was recently removed in St. Augustine. The monument dates to 1879, and these photographs are 1880," Dean explained. "So they're analogous -- as the monument was being put up to memorialize the Confederacy, this was what was happening in the Black community. These are images of people that were by and large left out of this historical narrative -- completely forgotten. Unknown. So by combining those two things and juxtaposing them, it's a way to say 'OK, what does the monument mean? How do we remember? Who do we remember?'"
Dean watched the removal of the Confederate monument and the escalating tensions last summer and saw a retread of the violent protests of 1964.
"When I would show the film ["Dare Not Walk Alone"] early on, pretty much universally, people would look at that footage -- and particularly white people -- would say, 'Well, that's evil. That's wrong. That's immoral," Dean said. "But thank goodness, that's not who we are anymore.' They would condemn it. Fast forward to 2020 when they tried to remove the Confederate monument guess what happened? Same thing. White supremacists, Klan members, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers came from all across the country to St. Augustine. They're waving 'Don't Tread On Me' flags, Confederate flags, spewing vitriol spewing hate. And in a split-screen image of those two events 1964 and 2020 in the square around the Confederate monument, it looks exactly the same. And what's ironic is the same people who condemned the old black and white footage somehow justify the new footage, the same exact response to the same exact problem."
Dean's new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is titled "Neither I, Nor time, Nor History."
"There's been a quote by James Baldwin that has been sort of my guiding light for the last 10 years, and where the title of the show comes from," Dean explained. "James Baldwin said: 'This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I, nor time, nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives, and do not know it -- and do not want to know it. It's their innocence that constitutes the crime.' And for me, that's been really illuminating," Dean said. "Because I think for so many of us in the white community in America, we think, 'Well, you know, I didn't own slaves. I'm not a racist.' We think racism are the people waving Confederate flags with KKK hoods. I think what James Baldwin is saying is that we have inherited an America that was built on a system that benefits white privilege, white class, and has denied the same privileges to others."
"What James Baldwin was trying to do," Dean continued, "was point out the connection between innocence and ignorance. And I think that that is really important for the white community to understand. The work that I'm trying to do now is about is trying to collapse the space between ignorance and innocence, and say that really there is no innocence. We collectively, as a country, bear responsibility for white whiteness has caused other people."
Collapsing that illusion will be painful, Dean said.
"I hope that in some ways that this work is accessible to people, and it brings people into the conversation. But I also hope that it's a searing indictment of what whiteness has cost, and what whiteness means. And that's pretty brutal, but I don't know how we get around it. I don't know how we move forward until we have had that conversation until we've had that reckoning.
"Racism is not a problem just for black people," Dean continued. "It's an American problem. And white people created it. And so white people have to be the ones responsible for changing it. ... And that and that means it's going to cost us something. And it should."
Although the removal of the Confederate monument unearthed ugly sentiments, Dean said, he believes the city is better for it.
"Symbols do matter. Symbols are important. The monument has to be dealt with. But if all we do is move the symbol, and we don't deal with the foundation, we don't deal with the structure that supports the symbol, we run the risk of doing something symbolic."
"Neither I, Nor Time, Nor History" is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville through May 16.
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