Black Lives Matter movement has impact on artists - and they have our attention
Three local artists explain how the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired their work. Salisbury Daily Times
In June, Mural Arts Philadelphia established the Philadelphia Fellowship for Black Artists to help fund, foster and elevate the important work of local Black artists.
Taj Poscé, 25, one of 20 fellows in the program, describes his work as optimistic and reflecting the idioms “every cloud has a silver lining” and “being on cloud nine.”
But on his Instagram account, you’ll also spot artwork that reflects our troubled times.
He painted “Misunderstood: Black Angel,” a week before Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man was shot and seriously injured by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. Poscé's painting included the same number of bullet wounds — seven — as Blake suffered.
“It is strange to me that it amounted to the same number of bullets in his body,” Poscé said of his painting. “It almost feels like being a Black male, it doesn’t matter how good or excellent you are or how good of a person you are. These kinds of things can happen to you at any moment of time.''
Traffic stops, walking home from the store, going for a jog and many other things people do every day have ended with the fatal shootings of unarmed Black people all across the country.
Such incidents birthed the Black Lives Matter movement and inspire not just protests, riots and counter-demonstrations, but some of the most urgent art being made today.
George Floyd died in May after a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes after detaining him, sparking worldwide protests.
More protests came in September when news broke that two of the three Louisville police officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, 26, would not be charged and the third was indicted for shooting into neighboring apartments, but not Taylor’s death.
Like Poscé, artists across the country responded the way know best, not with signs and slogans, but with paintbrushes and acrylics, cameras and film, ink and paper.
In this time of reckoning over racial injustice, we asked artists — actors, musicians, poets and others — from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region to reflect on how the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired their work and how they use art to pay homage to those whose lives have been cut short.
'What it must be like to endure this pain'
A Black mother cradles her dead son on her lap as she stares sadly and blankly ahead. They are on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, a busy, beautiful place, seated near a bed of flowers. His shirtless body appears lifeless and his long legs hang down over hers.
Brooklyn, New York, resident Jon Henry, a visual artist working with photography and text, had his work “Stranger Fruit,” depicting contemporary Black mothers and their sons in poses reminiscent of Michelangelo's "The Pieta,” in an exhibit last month at Big Day Film Collective in Collingswood.
Begun in 2014, Henry's project was created in response to the “senseless murders of Black men across the nation by police violence,” Henry says. “Even with smart phones and dash cams recording the actions, more lives get cut short due to unnecessary and excessive violence. Who is next? Me? My brother? My friends? How do we protect these men? Lost in the furor of media coverage, lawsuits and protests is the plight of the mother. Who, regardless of the legal outcome, must carry on without her child.”
The spark that ignited the project was lit much earlier.
“…I was very affected by this as it was happening throughout the years, but really in 2008, was the verdict with the Sean Bell murder. Sean Bell was the young man who was murdered at his bachelor party in Jamaica Queens (in 2006). ”
All three police officers indicted in the Bell killing were acquitted on all counts.
Henry photographed mothers with their sons, some of them young men, in their own environment, “reenacting what it must feel like to endure this pain. The mothers in the photographs have not lost their sons, but understand the reality, that this could happen to their family.”
Jackie Neale, who is White, is director and lead photographer at Big Day Film Collective, a new gallery art space she opened in Collingswood, after moving back to New Jersey from Brooklyn in December.
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A Cherry Hill native, Neale speaks to the emotional power of Henry's referencing of Michelangelo's iconic work, which depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of Mary after the Crucifixion. “This is very familiar imagery and he’s using this as a device to connect with people and how people revere the iconic graphic nature of that positioning,” said Neale, who will host more exhibits and other events in her gallery.
Henry said after these tragedies, protests, sometimes trials, what comes next for the families? “That’s where the project really gets its legs from and really focuses on the mothers," he said.
“… There’s this big message and that is that law enforcement is saying you don’t have any rights to fight back when you’re being confronted,'' reflected Neale. "There’s an impotence there. If our work can be that vehicle that can cross that impotence, then that has to be available and it’s very powerful.”
'When words can't be spoken, art is there ... '
Keisha Finnie was roughly 30 miles east of York, Pennsylvania, and immersed in a protest after Floyd’s death.
The self-taught artist in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was bouncing around ideas with other creatives and the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design about what they could do to shed light on the situation.
“When words can’t be spoken, art is there to create a visual,” Finnie said.
A collaborative effort produced the “Say Their Names” piece, a collage that features cutouts of the faces and names of Black people whose lives were taken at the hands of law enforcement. The artwork is a mobile work Finnie says will migrate to different Lancaster businesses like a “silent protest.”
Finnie didn’t stop there, though. Her latest projects surrounding the Black Lives Matter Movement have helped her grow as an artist, she said.
She also asked local photographers to donate their images of protesters, and those faces, signs and people make up “Ampersand.” The life-sized symbol is in PCAD Park, only steps away from the Lancaster City Bureau of Police Department.
These words are plastered on the sculpture and are surrounded by cropped photos of chanters, demonstrators and activists who have dedicated their time rallying for Black lives.
“[The movement] has made me more conscious of the work that I’m putting out and [I’m] creating work that means something to me or that I know other people will resonate with,” Finnie said.
‘The challenge of change’
Eileen Berger, 67, owner and director of Just Lookin’ Gallery in Hagerstown, Maryland, opened her business specializing in original art by Black American artists 25 years ago. Through Nov. 3, she is presenting “The Challenge of Change: Civil Rights in America,” featuring 25 artists and roughly 70 works.
Berger said the exhibit is a history lesson and political statement.
“I think now is the right time to get people to understand a little bit more. I like political statements; I won’t pretend I don’t,” Berger said. “This is probably my 12th or 13th Civil Rights show.”
Berger said the show, which includes pieces by Charly Palmer, Preston Sampson, Eli Kince, Wesley Clark and Evita Tezeno, was planned to open in November. That was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and before Floyd’s death. “I moved it up because sometimes you have to be topical about what’s going on in the world,” Berger said. “The show is historical, but it is also right now.”
Berger, who is white, grew up in Washington, D.C., “in a neighborhood full of people with different colors, races, nationalities than me. That was my whole life. I was part of the Civil Rights Movement in the late ‘60s,” she said.
Response to the exhibit has been encouraging. “To people who already have an affinity for art, they have more time to explore,” she said of the pandemic-restricted times we are living through.
But Berger believes the greatest support for the exhibit has nothing to do with a virus.
“There is a huge increase in awareness of disparity between Black and white right now,” she said. “Art is a way of hopefully opening up more people’s eyes. I always say, ‘Let’s start a dialogue.’ ”
"We have a really ugly history in this country,'' she said. "At this age, I am not so disillusioned that I don’t think we can’t have a more beautiful future. Let me do what I can do.”
'I try to push myself past what I can do'
Philadelphia native Courtney Newman, 31, has been creating art since he was in elementary school.
The Collingswood artist uses interesting objects to create his art, which he lets speak for him.
Newman incorporated about 3,600 Skittles to create a piece of art of Trayvon Martin, the teen killed in Florida by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012. Martin had had an iced tea and a pack of Skittles on him when he was fatally shot after a scuffle with Zimmerman.
“That was just a three-dimensional thing,” Newman said. “I used Skittles because of that situation. Then I did Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with bullet casings.”
“I do art, that’s what I do,'' said Newman, who also has done more straight-forward work to honor George Floyd. "I have epilepsy, so the working thing is a little slow. Art was my thing since when I was little. I do it for me and still try to make money off of it.”
'The heart is coming from the Black man in America'
Rochester, New York, native Shawn Dunwoody started his career in fine art, creating assemblage pieces that depicted the struggles of the African American community.
But he set a new course. He moved back to the city’s Northeast side, which has a high concentration of poverty, and began creating colorful murals with positive messages. His goal was to be a role model for Black youth.
"I think it's important," he said. "The intent and the heart is coming from a Black man in America."
The City of Rochester often seeks out Dunwoody when it needs an artist. After Washington, D.C., painted a street with “Black Lives Matter,” Rochester officials approached Dunwoody about doing something similar . He agreed to take on the project, but proposed taking it a step further. The city agreed with his vision.
His canvas was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park at Manhattan Square downtown, the focal point of many Black Lives Matter events. During two summer days he, along with some volunteers, painted nearly every surface of the sunken concrete amphitheater with matte black paint. In the middle he painted the Black Lives Matter fist symbol.
It was the largest art installation in a city that has a thriving public art scene. Dunwoody called it, “The Empire Strikes Black.”
He placed buckets of chalk for people to express themselves. People draw pictures, write messages and poetry. They post their creations on social media. Music videos have been shot in the space.
“It’s almost like looking at the world itself,” Dunwoody said. “It may look chaotic and crazy … but if you take your time and individually look at each one, you can find deep meaning and connections to people.”
The space is an amphitheater, he explained. It is meant to amplify voices.
‘Did you get in the house?’
Poscé, who has family in law enforcement and the military, was raised with the notion to look after his siblings, which he still does, including a younger brother who is a postal worker and one who is incarcerated.
"I talk to them the same, whether it’s in a letter or on the phone,” he said. “I think I have a pretty good head on my shoulders as a young man, but my parents still have the same conversations with me. They constantly check on me, ask me, ‘Did you get in the house?' "
One of his most recent works features a Black baby dressed as an angel soaring in the clouds. It’s something he was inspired to paint while reflecting on a trip studying abroad in Rome.
“I saw a lot of supernatural afterlife and these ideas of life after and what we experience. But all the pictures that I saw were pictures of white cherubs or Caucasian people,” he said.
He sees progress within the arts in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, but believes more can be done.
“There has been a lot of growth in the last few years in terms of Black artists and representation and what is exposed and what’s not. But I think it is up to the artists of the time just to continue to create truthfully,” he said.
'The more visible Black peoples' experience is ... the more it's changing Black people'
Shanel Edwards, 25, is a queer, non-binary, dancer, photographer, director and poet.
Edwards, whose work centers on Black Queer Femme-hood, learned about the history of the Black Lives Matter Movement while at Temple University.
“There was a lot that I was learning about myself and the world. It was really painful, it was really disgusting, but also beautiful and life changing. So I think in that way the more visible Black experience is — Black pain, Black joy, all of those things — the more it’s changing Black people in particular. I think with that, my artwork became more centered in who I was and who I am — and who I am becoming and evolving into every day.
"Black folks have lived through incredible trauma and upheaval. This may be the wildest time of our lives. Our lineage and our ancestors have experienced things that we can never imagine.... And all of our Black artists are doing what we can to survive and that shows in our work.”
'Everybody's tired of this'
In Asbury Park, New Jersey, Alexander Simone, grandson of music legend Nina Simone, released the song “Fight the Fight,” and helped lead a Floyd protest in the city in June.
“The track was originally written four years ago with things going on in Baltimore, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, that's when the track originated but it’s like a timeless track,” Simone said. “When all this started happening again, it resurrected the lyrics. I felt it was time.”
Nina Simone's Civil Rights songs, including “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” are classics.
“So PROUD of my son,” said mom Lisa Simone on Instagram. “His grandmother is nodding in approval, too!! The family legacy continues.”
Also at the Jersey Shore, hip-hop musician Chill Smith re-released his track “Reverse Racism,” and shot a new video for it, too.
“I think what's happening is people are tired, everybody's tired of this,” said Smith in June. “I think a lot of allies have reached out to people in the community they know to try to uplift their voices. That's why the song has resurfaced, which makes sense.”
National acts in the region are speaking up, too. Bronx rhymer Kemba laid out the conflicting nature of today's world, specifically when it comes to policing, on his “Kill Your Idols,” released three days after the Floyd death. Philly's Meek Mill reported from the “Otherside of America” in a powerful track that includes a sample of a Trump speech.
‘Have we learned nothing?’
Cisco Soto and Miles Murdaugh were at a crossroads following George Floyd’s death. The Washington Winnona Images partners were uncertain about attending and photographing a protest forming in downtown York, Pennsylvania.
Murdaugh saw fire trucks along the streets and unraveled fire hoses spread along the sidewalks earlier in the day.
He thought, "Have we learned nothing?''
The thought referenced the racial turmoil that boiled over in York in the late ‘60s, claiming two lives.
Ultimately, they saw this demonstration as an opportunity to document what matters to their community and to broaden their artistic scope.
Soto and Murdaugh grew up in York, so they also felt an obligation to accurately depict the protest. Their photos would oppose any “look what they did” jabs from media that could potentially vilify protesters.
“You can take anything and turn it into something impactful. The voice has to come from people who are closest to it,” Soto said.
Their images led to “Through Our Lens: I Can’t Breathe,” an exhibit at Marketview Arts in downtown York.
Soto and Murdaugh hand-selected over a dozen photos to debut. They will be on display until Oct 17.
The artists also made a video that captures their evening roaming through the crowds and interacting with protest participants
It was an experience Murdaugh said relayed a declaration from protesters: “If you’re not dealing with this, you’re going to watch us deal with it.”
The exhibit is a sensory experience with an Afrocentric music playlist filled with namesakes like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. There are also book excerpts and text that analyze race and blackness. Inside a clear encasement in the exhibit are photos and program brochures for minstrel shows that took place in York County. They plan to revisit this subject on a wider scale eventually.
Although Soto and Murdaugh are happy with the exhibit , they think more can be done to bring narratives about minority communities to the forefront. They agree projects like this shouldn’t solely be contingent upon the loss of another Black life.
“We have to find a way to not just be a flavor of the month,” Soto said.
Dunwoody said Black people have always been creators of culture from jazz music to hip hop culture to the Harlem Renaissance. “It’s always been there,” he said. “You just didn’t see it. Folks weren’t paying attention. We’re expressing Black lives. We’ve always done that. It’s not a fad.
“It always has been Black people expressing Black people. You just weren’t looking.”
Alicia Notarianni of the Herald-Mail contributed to this report.