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The faces of hate: UMass exhibit uses small figurines to represent U.S. hate groups

  • Black seperatist members belong to one of more than 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

  • Many of the figurines have the cherubic looks of Hummels, the porcelain figurines of children that first gained popularity in Germany in the 1930s. CAROL LOLLIS

  • These figurines may look comical, until they are seen in conjunction with blown-up pictures of real skinheads. CAROL LOLLIS

  • The White Nationalist group is name as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has exploded since 2008, when the country elected its first African-American president.

  • A neo-Nazi figurine in the exhibit “The Hate Project,” on view at the Hampden Gallery at UMass —CAROL LOLLIS

  • “The Hate Project” is on view through Dec. 7 at the Hampden Gallery at UMass. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Cole’s exhibit includes enlarged black-and-white photographs that he took at a skinhead rally in California. CAROL LOLLIS

  • These figurines are placed on shelves, which are labeled by the names of states to give a sense of where the hate groups hail from. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cole’s exhibit includes enlarged black-and-white photographs that he took at a skinhead rally in California. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “The Hate Project” is on view through Dec. 7 at the Hampden Gallery at UMass. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “The Hate Project” is on view through Dec. 7 at the Hampden Gallery at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2016

In an election season that included anti-immigrant rhetoric, misogyny, racism and a regular level of vulgarity — and which has been followed by a wave of incidents such as racist graffiti — it seems a fitting exhibit.

But “The Hate Project,” currently on view at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, speaks to a broader current of ugliness in America that is not confined to election campaigns.

In the show, at the Hampden Gallery, Alabama artist Steve Cole has assembled hundreds of figurines, each representing a hate group in the United States, from the Ku Klux Klan to Neo-Nazi organizations to racist/skinhead groups.

At first glance, the figurines, made of a type of fortified plaster, seem relatively innocuous; many of them have the cherubic look of Hummels, the porcelain figurines of children that first gained popularity in Germany in the 1930s, and later became popular collectibles in this country and others.

But look a little closer and the images aren’t so benign. A boyish figure representing a neo-Nazi group, dressed in a khaki shirt and a black tie like a Hitler Youth, gives a Nazi salute. Other figurines wear the hood and white shrouds of KKK members. A ruby-cheeked figure wearing a cowboy hat holds up a small flag that says “God Hates Fags.”

Other parts of the exhibit leave no doubt about its thrust. Several enlarged black-and-white photographs that Cole took at a skinhead rally in California show young men covered in garish tattoos, including prominent swastikas. There’s also a display of hate literature that’s chilling by itself.

To top it off, Cole has constructed two freestanding, two-dimensional wooden sculptures that mimic the look and garb of some of his figurines, such as a hooded KKK figure.

Cole, who teaches art at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), said he opened the exhibit three years ago in Birmingham to coincide with events the city held to recall the 1963 bombing of a black church during the civil rights movement. His aim, he wrote in an email, was in part to show that hatred and bigotry can still be found all around the country.

“The Klan and other groups like them are not relics from the past,” he said. “[They’re] still a force that needs to be tamped down by people who are not complacent and will continue to fight for tolerance and the rights of others.”

Hard, cold data

Cole has based his project on data from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a Montgomery, Alabama, organization that tracks extremist groups in the U.S. He also attended KKK rallies and a neo-Confederate conference, all in the South, to talk to participants and try and understand what attracted people to the groups.

His original installation of “The Hate Project” took a different form, in part to show that hate groups are not confined to one part of the country: He placed hundreds of figurines on a floor-mounted, black silhouette of the U.S. that measured roughly 25 by 50 feet.

At the time, SPLC counted just over 1,000 individual hate groups, with the heaviest concentration in the South and Midwest, but also considerable numbers in California and parts of the Northeast, including New England.

The Hampden Gallery does not have enough space to accommodate the full exhibit, so Cole has placed half his figurines — approximately 450 — on shelves along one wall, which are labeled by the names of states to give a sense of where the groups hail from.

Mounting the figurines, which stand between about 10 and 12 inches high, against the wall provides its own eerie effect, Cole notes.

“Even if the number was halved, it would still be rather intimidating to be surrounded by the number of hate groups,” he said.

Today, according to information from the SPLC that’s included in the exhibit, there are about 900 organized extremist groups in the U.S., and Cole breaks down his figurines along those lines. Aside from the KKK, skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, the SPLC identifies neo-Confederates, white nationalists, “Christian identity” organizations, black separatists and “general hate” groups.

Cole has also painted a number of his figurines — all of which he manufactured, with help from students — while leaving most in their raw white form.

The effect at first can be comical — for instance, some of the skinhead figurines wear black boots, purple shorts, and red suspenders over their bare chests — but when seen in conjunction with the blown-up pictures of real skinheads, the small plaster forms take on a different meaning.

Call to action

Anne Laprade Seuthe, director of the Hampden Gallery, said her original plan was to display “The Hate Project” alongside two other exhibits that would examine the effects of war and hatred on actual landscapes and the descendants of the survivors of genocide, respectively. Space didn’t permit that, so “The Hate Project” has been shown alongside the other two shows, one at a time.

Currently, the exhibit next to “The Hate Project” is “Atrocity Landscapes,” consisting of photos by Massachusetts photographer Sondra Peron of historic battlefields, such as Verdun in France. The artist has added historical notes and other text and invites viewers to reconsider these killing fields and their position in them. 

Cole says he sees his installation as more than just an artistic statement against hate and intolerance. It’s also a call to action to combat it, particularly given how the numbers of these extremist groups, according to SPLC, have exploded since 2008, when the country elected its first African-American president.

In an interview he gave when his exhibit opened in 2013, Cole said he was particularly saddened at the way children were indoctrinated with hate, which was why he chose to represent the groups with his Hummel-like figurines.

“That’s the saddest part of all of this,” he said. “[The children] are all homeschooled. That’s the only thing they see. They’ve probably never talked with a person of color. ... They’re taught intolerance as innocent kids.”

In his exhibition notes, Cole says it’s imperative that people fight back against what he calls “a contagion of intolerance that is released into the world with horrific consequences. It must be addressed.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“The Hate Project” can be seen at the Hampden Gallery at UMass through Dec. 7. Gallery hours are Mondays through Fridays from 1 to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m.