As Toni Morrison has said, art is political. It would behoove us to remember that art is also performative.
In recent weeks, national protests sparked by the unjust police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others—including, as recently as Friday, Rayshard Brooks—have inspired Black artists to convey their frustration, pain, demands, and commitment to Black people through art.
In this historic moment, Black everything is in demand: the intellectual labor, the artistic aesthetic, the cool factor, you name it. Across the country, companies and universities have posted expressions of solidarity with Black lives. It’s a milestone, but it’s only impactful if it actually improves the lives of Black people.
In an effort to stand in solidarity with protestors, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned a 50-foot street mural that spells out “Black Lives Matter” in bold yellow letters. Since then, Black Lives Matter street murals have popped up in cities across America, including Raleigh and Charlotte.
Last week, a racially diverse group of volunteers painted a massive mural in front of CAM Raleigh that says “End Racism Now.” The 20-foot, yellow-lettered mural was initiated by Charman Driver and her husband, Frank Thompson, alongside several downtown business owners.
As Driver told ABC11, she wanted to place the mural closer to the Confederate monument at the State Capitol, but she couldn’t because it was on private property.
“Really it would have made a lot of sense,” she said. “‘End Racism Now’ is what it says, leading up to that Confederate statue that is so painful for so many Americans. We’d like to see it gone.”
Though the messaging arguably is powerful, the mural is leading local artists to question what’s next. Driver, who sits on the board of CAM Raleigh, is well aware of the mural’s shortcomings, saying she wasn’t fully satisfied with it and that “there’s more work to be done.”
After all, the mural is located in a city with a proven dysfunctional police department, where Southeastern residents are being displaced by gentrification. And CAM doesn’t necessarily have a solid track record of navigating issues of race, power, and privilege, as we saw in its mishandling of a racially charged exhibit by Margaret Bowland, a white artist, in 2018.
Activist and artist Monèt Noelle Marshall is a member of Art Ain’t Innocent, a Southern artist collective working to create equitable, sustainable art spaces in Durham. She notes that the photo of the mural circulating online may well have been taken from the top of The Dillon, where studio apartments start at over $1,000.
“If we want to end racism, don’t paint it on the street unless you’re also going to couple that with going to these institutions and asking, how are we actually supporting, centering, and funding Black artists without using them as a token or prop?” Marshall says.
This sentiment seems to be shared by other artists across the nation. For example, the D.C. mural was criticized by D.C. Black Lives Matter activists, who called it a “performative distraction from real policy changes” on Twitter. It’s difficult not to see Raleigh’s mural as equally performative and superficial. Driver’s original plan is a carbon copy of the blueprint Mayor Bowser laid out.
How can artists unapologetically document the climate of America while assuring that the voices of Black artists are centered? More important, how can we protect the Black aesthetic of resistance from being co-opted and appropriated?
In downtown Charlotte, 17 artists replicated D.C.’s affirmation that “Black Lives Matter,” but instead of bold yellow letters, the colorful mural includes powerful visuals inside of each letter that are specific to the lived experiences of the Black community.
Unlike the murals in D.C. and Raleigh, Charlotte’s mural was a collaboration between the city and local arts organizations. The artists were paid a stipend and received free supplies.
Just three days after the mural in Charlotte was completed, someone defaced it with tire marks. On June 14, the artists returned to repair the damage, showing their tenacity and resilience.
In Durham, instead of one large mural, 23 local artists, with the assistance of Art Ain’t Innocent and NorthStar Church of the Arts, created 24 smaller murals downtown. Rumors of disruptive protests had caused most businesses to board up, and to show solidarity, some of them commissioned Black artists to paint whatever they desired on the plywood over the glass.
Before that effort, Beyu Caffe—one of the few Black-owned establishments downtown—had already hired Gemynii and Jupiter Black to paint a mural. Dashi also hired Gemynii, and Unscripted Durham had commissioned Candy Carver. Working with other businesses downtown, NorthStar and Art Ain’t Innocent made sure that Black art and voices were centered and that the artists received equitable compensation.
“It’s not about putting something pretty up,” Marshall says.
In the end, thousands of dollars went to local artists, who were not responsible for purchasing supplies. To protect them from any accusations of vandalizing or destroying property, the Art Ain’t Innocent crew required that the businesses call the Durham Police Department to give them a detailed heads-up of what was happening.
“We know that our art creates value for other people—but we are doing this for us,” Marshall says. “We’re doing this for Black Durham. We’re doing this for ourselves.”
Black artists in Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte have a complicated relationship with their cities’ public art programs. Not only are the opportunities limited by budget constraints, but each city has dropped the ball on prioritizing local artists and artists of color in some way.
Although the Raleigh Arts Commission, the official advisory body and advocate for the arts, is moderately racially diverse, Raleigh’s Public Art and Design board is made up of only white members.
In Durham, the Cultural Advisory Board and Public Art Committee [disclosure: the author is a member of the latter] are both racially diverse, but their history of hiring visual artists outside of North Carolina has garnered stark criticism from the community.
With the national attention the “Black Lives Matter” mural in Charlotte has received, local artist Dammit Wesley said in an interview that he “hopes that the attention increases exposure and opens more doors to paid gigs—longtime issues in the creative community and part of the economic equality that Black artists say is long overdue.”
The murals in downtown Durham and the collaborative project in Charlotte demonstrate that public art can be done efficiently with a quick turnaround (most city-funded public art projects have lengthy timelines). More important, it reveals that when working closely with an established art community, a “request for qualification” has little value.
“There’s this triangle of time, money, and quality. I’ve been told you can have two or three, but you can’t have all three,” says Marshall, who sits on Durham’s Public Art Committee. “And with this experience, I recognize that that’s a lie. You can have less time. You don’t have to have a lot of money to have great quality—if you have relationships.”
Though you see her paintings all over Durham, full-time artist Candy Carver’s primary income is from individual clients, organizations, and businesses, not the city.
“The Durham Public Art program is currently ineffective for the community that it is intended to serve,” she says.
When Unscripted Durham told Carver that they were offering creative freedom to paint three large plywood panels located in the front of the boutique hotel, she immediately thought of the cultural significance of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Having applied for mural and other large-scale projects commissioned by the city in the past, only to be overlooked, Carver decided to take advantage of this opportunity by being intentional with her messaging. She painted the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in white, set against a black background. Originally a poem, it was set to music in 1900 and adopted by the NAACP in 1919. It is known in Black communities as “The Black National Anthem.”
“I knew that the white people passing who were complimenting me would not know what [the lyrics] were,” Carver says. “There’s a very different life that Black people live. If you don’t know, you don’t know. This song has been around for over a hundred years, and we still found a way to pass it down to each other.”
During a visit to Portland State University in 1975, Toni Morrison said to a mostly white audience of academics, “When Black artists speak to each other, what happens is that the message is received by people outside the group better. … Educating [others] is not [Black people’s] business. But if it was important, the best way to do it is not to explain anything.”
Carver’s coded artwork follows in Morrison’s spirit. The adjacent panel features her signature abstract style and leans on black, red, and green: the colors of the Pan-African or Black Liberation Flag. Like “Lift Every Voice,” non-Black onlookers often fail to connect with her artwork besides acknowledging how appealing it is, forcing them to figure it out on their own. When thinking about Black art as a political tool, it is important that the conversation has layers and doesn’t just stop at words, phrases, photo-ops, or visual appeal. Carver’s last panel challenges Durham: “You snapped a few mural pics. Now what?”
For Black people, Carver’s artwork offers a sense of pride and healing while battling a global pandemic and systemic racism. To protect her work from being a temporary fix, Carver negotiated for one of her panels to become a permanent piece at Unscripted. The other two will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to a social justice organization of her choice.
In a call to action on Instagram, Marshall reminded everyone that “When you see the work by the Black artists downtown, know that they made a choice. We chose our creativity over their commitment to misunderstanding us. Our voice over their slack-jawed silence. Our freedom over their systemic failure. When we say Black Lives Matter, we are saying that Black housing matters, Black farmers matter, Black land matters, Black children matter, Black trans folx matter, Black families matter, and Black art matters.”
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