Pictura Gallery

Gesche Würfel

At the Hands of Persons Unknown

Lynching has been one of the most odious aspects of mob violence in the United States since the nineteenth century. Lynching emerged as
one of the brutal tools of racial control to suppress black civil rights and to maintain white supremacy.

Gesche Würfel brings our attention to the women, who represent a sizable minority of lynching victims: 169 women, 169 names, burned
into wood and installed here in a grid as a memorial. It’s very difficult to look directly at this unfathomable part of American history. But it’s also crucial that we keep it seared into our communal memory.

Würfel’s haunting prints of branches and limbs are abstracted in such a way that I begin to hear spirits cry out. With this project, she offers
another way not to look away - to gather around the trees, those unwitting participants in the nation’s shame, this time in collective lament.

At the Hands of Persons Unknown explores how trees have been silent witnesses to the lynchings of women in the United States.

I was motivated to create this series because I am a white German woman married to an African American man. We live in the American South, and if we had been born a generation earlier, our relationship would have been illegal, if not cause to be lynched. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Loving vs. Virginia, only ended the prohibition on interracial marriage in 1967.

Rather than photographing trees which were supposedly known to be used for lynchings, which are difficult to verify, I photographed old Southern trees as “stand-ins”. I made this decision after my mother-in-law first visited us in the South, when she said that she couldn’t look at an old Southern tree without imaging them as lynching trees. Through long exposure and movement of the camera, the trees and the branches I captured were rendered abstract, almost ghostlike.

With support from the Puffin Foundation and UNC Chapel HIll Department of Art

Gesche Würfel is a visual artist and Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received an MFA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA), an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures from Goldsmiths, University of London (UK), and a diploma in Spatial Planning from the Technical University Dortmund (Germany).

Her work has been exhibited, published, and awarded internationally. Exhibition venues include the Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY; Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) Raleigh, NC; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Tate Modern; and Kokerei Zollverein (Germany). She is currently exhibiting her work in a solo exhibition at the Pensacola Museum of Art, FL.

Würfel is the author of Basement Sanctuaries (Schilt Publishing 2014). She is a recipient of grants from the Puffin Foundation, the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and others. Würfel was named as the Juror’s Pick for the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016, a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Lange-Taylor Award, and in Critical Mass 2017. Collecting institutions are the MIT Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art.

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