Brian Gillis' installation is based on historical evidence of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton's bedroom on December 4, 1969, the night he was shot and killed by Chicago police on an assignment from then Cook County State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan. Mark Clark, the organizer of the Peoria, Illinois, chapter of the Black Panthers was also killed during the raid. The physical evidence later showed that the officers had fired nearly 100 shots in the apartment where Hampton, his girlfriend, and several other members of the Black Panther Party were sleeping. According to Gillis, the officers left the scene but the Black Panther Party painstakingly documented it and then opened it to the public (similar to Emmett Till's open casket funeral in Chicago following his 1955 racially motivated murder in Mississippi). Through a series of lawsuits filed by the People's Law Office, it was later discovered that the FBI's secret COINTELPRO program played a major role in the assassination and cover-up. Gillis's priority with this project is to show the depth and breadth of who Hampton was and the impact that he both had and could have had. For example, while involved with the Black Panthers, he facilitated a massive peace agreement between many of Chicago's street gangs, organized rallies, provided political education, and played a significant role in a free breakfast program for children. He was only 21-years-old when he was assassinated.
Gillis, an Oregon-based artist, was inspired to develop His Room for this exhibition in response to Illinois's historical, political, and cultural connections to the Hampton case. He accumulated a research archive and will present it in an installation that evokes a reading room and reproduction center. Before entering the reading area, participants will pass through a layered curtain, functioning as a metaphor for both the transgression of boundaries and the revelation of secrets concealed 'behind the curtain.' The archive will be filled with news accounts, imagery, and literature related not only to this event, but also to a range of relevant topics including police brutality, street gangs, the Weather Underground, John Brown, FBI corruption, and the Black Panthers. In describing his motivation for the spectrum of topics, Gillis said, “I'm hoping that these books serve as the primary foundation for an inquiry into the life and death of Fred Hampton as a way to, perhaps, understand the complexity of issues regarding race and social revolution in the U.S.” Additionally, Gillis will present copies of the books that Fred Hampton had in his bedroom on the night of his death, with topics ranging from imperialism, to the origin of various sciences, to pregnancy (his girlfriend was pregnant at the time), which will also be on view. Lastly, the exhibition will feature nine books Gillis compiled that include the Grand Jury's report about the case, inventories of physical evidence collected from government repositories, and files accessed via the Freedom of Information Act. He produced the books with the intention of including them in a university library's collection— even binding them in the appropriate book cloth with suggested call numbers in an institutional sans serif font—and will make them available for study during the exhibition.
Gillis is an artist-in-residence in the School of Art's Visiting Artist Program. University Galleries is partnering with the V.A.P. to host lectures, performances, and exhibitions for the 2014 Visiting Artists. University Galleries is collaborating with Milner Library to include books related to the topic in the exhibition.
Gillis' work has been included in solo and group exhibitions at Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama; Milwaukee Art Museum; CUE Art Foundation, New York; Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Grand Rapids, Michigan; and American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona, California, among others. He has received grants and awards from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Illinois Arts Council, Contemporary Artists Center, University of Oregon, University of Illinois at Springfield, and Shanghai University. The artist's work has been included in multiple books including Paperclay: Art and Practice (Bloomsbury Publishing/University of Pennsylvania Press); Studio Space (McGraw Hill); The Plywood Book (Storey Publishing); and Free Radio Manual (CUE Art Foundation). Gillis, who received his M.F.A. from Alfred University and his B.A. from Humboldt State University, is Associate Professor of Art at University of Oregon in Eugene.