In an interview, singer and Civil Rights activist, Nina Simone was asked what freedom was to her. After some thought, and a few faltering attempts to answer, she finally arrived at what that feeling meant.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean, really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life… no fear…”
It makes sense a witness to the Civil Rights movement would view freedom in those terms. In her song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.”, Simone’s lyrics capture one of the deepest wishes of Black America:
“I wish I could break all the things that bind us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
And you’d see … you’d agree…
Everybody should be free…”
But then, with her inimitable Nina Simone style, she warns her listeners, “cause if we ain’t, we’re murderous.”
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the fatal suffocation of Eric Garner by the NYPD have made it clear that Black Americans still do not enjoy freedom. Nina Simone’s lyrics remain as true today as they were when she sang them during the violence of the 1960s. Half a century later, black people live with the same fear and awareness that comes from knowing our society is murderous. Thus, today’s artists must still voice their feelings of that fear and speak out against any assumptions of worthlessness.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter did not start with the death of Michael Brown or Eric Garner but back in 2012, with the killing of Trayvon Martin at the hands of his neighbor George Zimmerman. Since then, #BlackLivesMatter has signaled the birth of a new era of the American Civil Rights movement and a powerful rallying cry in the streets.
This week, as part of our month-long series highlighting the overlooked contributions of black artists, here are five works that breathe the #BlackLivesMatter message into a visual form.
Equally inspired by the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot (which referenced the shooting death of Michael Brown) the St. Louis-based artist Damon Davis, has created a staggeringly simple body of work. Aided by fellow artist Basil Kincaid, the two focused on the gesture of “hands up,” and installed black arms with their hands raised, and half-buried in the earth. The effect of the black limbs sticking up from the grass like tombstones gives the work a rather chilling effect.
2. “THE EYES OF ERIC GARNER” BY PARISIAN ARTIST JR
This piece took center stage at December’s march in New York City to protest police violence and memorialize Eric Garner. Once unveiled, it became instantly iconic. The mobile artwork led the march, and in one undeniable image demanded dignity for the deceased by uniting the crowd behind the martyred man’s penetrating stare.
3. CULTURE-JACKING BASEBALL
Due to some unfortunate timing last October, #Ferguson protesters seized on civic excitement about baseball to call attention to the fact #BlackLivesMatter. Over the last few years, whenever the St. Louis Cardinals have made it to the playoffs, the city has dyed the waters of the fountain at Kiener Plaza a deep red to support their team. This past year, when protesters ended their march at the plaza, they gathered before the blood red waters that fittingly surround a statue of a young man. Their message took on a deeply powerful visual and an ugly reminder of the not-so-distant past when slaves were auctioned on the steps of the courthouse nearby. As one protesters noted: “Police terror existed well before slavery ended. They didn’t respect black lives then and they don’t respect black lives now.”*
4. “CALL US BY OUR NAMES” BY LEE EDWARD COLSTON & KEITH WALLACE
In another act of performance art, two young men, Lee Edward Colston and Keith Wallace, used a famous Philadelphia landmark as a backdrop for their silent #Ferguson protest. As Wallace lay on the ground symbolically recreating the death of Michael Brown, tourists huddled nearby to snap pictures next to the iconic sign in LOVE Park.
5. PORTRAIT OF RENISHA MCBRIDE, OASA DUVERNEY
When Smack Mellon heard that a New York grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner, the gallery decided to postpone their next scheduled exhibition. Instead, they quickly curated a new show called “Respond” and they devoted it exclusively to the message that #BlackLivesMatter. As artist Joseph DeLappe said, “My bone to pick with the art world is that it’s too slow to respond to anything.” Smash Mellon’s way to encourage a timely response was to ask 200 artists to show work, past or present, that commented on the cultural disregard of black people and their lives. Studio artist, Oasa DuVerney submitted a portrait of Renisha McBride, a young woman who was shot when she knocked on a stranger’s door asking for help after she’d crashed her car. DuVerney said:
“I’ve been responding to the Renisha McBride case since I heard about it, in late 2013. I have a teenage daughter. Her story, it made me really sad as a mother, as a black person, as a person. This idea that our kids are not allowed to make mistakes. We can’t do it, because they will show us no mercy.”
6. “RAISE UP” HANK WILLIS THOMAS
African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas showed his work at last year’s Art Basel, one of the largest and most important art fairs in the world. His bronze statues featured the now-familiar “Hands Up” pose. But the figures appeared as though they were submerged in whiteness, drowning in it. The message was unequivocal.
Last week’s piece in our series for Black History Month focused on black painters.