In early June, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national Black Lives Matter protests, Black artists began painting murals on the boarded-up windows of downtown Durham. Organized in part by NorthStar Church of the Arts and the local arts-equity advocates of Art Ain’t Innocent, the murals were created in tandem with national public-art responses to Black Lives Matter.
Weeks after the murals went up, John Davis, a white photographer in Durham, began taking pictures of them. Without consulting the artists, he compiled images of the work of more than a dozen artists into a book that he titled All/Black Lives Matter, which evokes the anti-Black “All Lives Matter” slogan.
“One thing that really upset me was the title of the book,” says Wade H. Williams, whose mural art was used on Davis’s business card. “I feel that that ‘slash’ is John Davis projecting his white privilege without even thinking about who I am or what the work is really all about. Once we get to a point [where] Black Lives Matter, then and only then will all lives matter.”
“BLM is what it is,” Davis told the INDY over the phone. “I thought it was important to be inclusive and to say that we’re all in this together.”
Davis says he only made seven or eight copies of the book, which might have gone unnoticed had the downtown bar LouElla Wine, Beer & Beverage not promoted it in an Instagram post on July 18, stating that it was “a beautiful way to save those works of art.”
The post set into motion a week of pushback from community members who recognized the artwork and flooded the LouElla Instagram with comments. They also reached out to the bar and Davis to voice concern about the book, calling it theft and invoking the hashtag #PayBlackArtists.
Initially, Davis was unresponsive to the pushback.
“You put art up in the street and walk away from it, it’s up for grabs,” he told the INDY.
He also said that he had responded to an email from Laura Ritchie, a member of the collective Art Ain’t Innocent, but had otherwise not engaged with Black artists or community members who had reached out.
Davis said he sold three books—for $50 each, not $75 as originally advertised—gave one away, and destroyed the rest.
“I didn’t make the ‘fortune’ I’m being accused of,” he wrote in a follow-up text.
Profit, though, was only one of the issues at the heart of the controversy. The artists that the INDY spoke with expressed frustration over seeing their work—a loving and intentional response to the events of Black Lives Matter—co-opted by a white person who showed no interest in researching the movement or having a dialogue with the artists.
Some were also concerned with the way that the book portrays the murals as a creative flashpoint rather than an organized effort that centers Black agency.
“A group of talented and creative local Durham artists emerged spontaneously to decorate these boards with amazing artwork never seen before and likely never to be seen again,” Davis wrote in the intro. “As businesses began to reopen, the boards and artwork began to disappear.”
Marcella Camara, one of the muralists, points out that the murals have been relocated and that the artists paid for a Black photographer to document and preserve the work.
“I remember in college, organizing with the NAACP, [and] Tim Tyson was one of our mentors,” Camara says. “And he said, ‘If someone describes something as a spontaneous moment, they probably just don’t know anybody in the community.’”
On July 24, after mounting community pressure, Davis donated the $150 he’d made from the books to the Durham Artist Relief Fund. The artists involved are having conversations this week about how the money will be used.
“I don’t want it to be an ‘us vs. them’ thing,” Davis told the INDY, sounding wounded.
In an email to Laura Ritchie, though, his tone had a different edge.
“Please,” he wrote to Ritchie. “Tell your people to back off.”
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