John Sims Tackles Pair of Pandemics

Arts & Culture

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUN 19, 2020

This past Sunday, Sarasota-based artist/activist John Sims published an open letter to the entire American police community in the Orlando Sentinel. “I have been meaning to write you since the ‘90s,” the letter begins, listing the names of black victims of police brutality from Rodney King to Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor and more, culminating in reflection on the “merciless death” of George Floyd as immediately emblematic of a deeper rot at the heart of law enforcement culture. Sims goes on to write about the “virus of racism and white supremacy” leading to a “pandemic of protests”—repurposing language the audience will now be all too familiar with in the context of COVID-19. And through his writing, his visual art and even a coronavirus-inspired video game, Sims explores a resonant connection emerging between what he represents as the malignancies infecting America.

Before the death of George Floyd but while COVID-19 was already disproportionately affecting communities of color, Sims created a new self-portrait, A Date with Fear, depicting the artist in the familiar black turtleneck and leather jacket of the Black Panthers, wearing a surgical mask with ‘Hello’ scrawled across it, holding a rose and surrounded by giant balls of coronavirus. An upside-down American flag pin marks his left lapel. At the same time, Sims created an online fine art video game dubbed Korona Killa, seeing the user take part in a Space Invaders-style battle against COVID-19 virions and bats. Both stem from the artist confronting his own fear of the virus and the ever-baffling question as to how to fight it, while pondering how society’s relationship to the threat would differ if the threat were clearly visible to all.

And in these questions and fears, Sims finds a very real analog to the reality of racism in his country. “Some elements of racism are very obvious, like KKK hoods or confederate flags, but there’s another insidious kind that is much more sophisticated,” he says, and these elements “are invisible, but still there and very viral.” The epidemic of police brutality then stems from this “racism as virus” like an autoimmune disease, where the white blood cells of the body attack that which they are supposed to protect. Like flu seasons that wax and wane though the virus never entirely disappears, this national sickness flares on a regular basis, he says, “but with no vaccine and only temporary treatments.” Viewed through this lens, the resulting pandemic of protests appears unavoidable. “America already had a pre-existing condition called American racism and police brutality,” Sims says.

And after more than 20 years of activism through art, Sims holds no illusions that his next painting will change the world. “Critical change happens because of critical loss—death,” he says. “The art just exposes how much further we need to go in developing our humanity.”

Pictured: Second Date With Fear: A Self Portrait in May 2020 by John Sims

Click here to play Korona Killa and view Date with Fear on the artistís website below.

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