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Frontiers of Enterprise The art of protest

Artists find their voices, power through creation

Black Lives Matter murals and other public art spark conversation and controversy — and maybe even change. Artists share how their work has empowered others and themselves.

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More than 2,000 public works of art have been created around the world after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Source: Urban Art Mapping George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database

Demetris Washington, known as B.A.M.R. the artist, will never forget his first mural. He was a senior at Stagg High School in Stockton, California, in 2008 when his teacher asked him to paint a lion’s face on the locker room doors.  “I got 500 bucks. I was 17 and that was a lot. Before that, I had only been drawing and I didn’t know much about paint, so it took me two and a half months, even though it was a small mural, because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Fast forward to 2020, when Washington helped create one of the most iconic murals of all time on the median of the Capitol Mall in Sacramento, California, spelling out Black Lives Matter — each letter 20 by 30 feet — in a piece of art that stretched three blocks.

“I got the call and at first I said no,” Washington said. “You want me to do what? On the steps of the capitol? There were riots and curfews in place and I’m like, ‘Who authorized this?’ ”

He posted about it on Instagram to ask for help, and then he ran to Home Depot for paint. When he got to the site with the supplies, hundreds of people were there, ready to help.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was making it up as I went along. It was overwhelming at first because as a Black artist in America I always worry if I’m good enough, and this was a mass audience. I’m not a political artist, but you have to step outside of yourself; you become a vessel. It definitely started a lot of conversations and empowered people. People feel like they have a voice now.”

An aerial view of the Black Lives Matter street art in uptown Charlotte, N.C., in June 2020. (Photo courtesy of Tim Miner/Charlotte Star Room)

During the past year, similar murals sprang up across the country, each sparking conversation, sometimes controversy.

“Art has been a part of social change for centuries and what’s happening now is more about who’s recognizing it and a social awareness of what’s happening now,” says K. Liles, co-founder, president and executive director of SouthEnd Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, a gallery with a mission of elevating underrepresented and underinvested artists and a focus on promoting social justice initiatives through art.

“Spelling out Black Lives Matter is obvious, but the art within had more to it. And for the artists, who are critical thinkers translating their work in a way that makes a statement, that’s the most beautiful piece of art. There’s a lot of critical thinking that goes into it and then when it sparks communication and conversation and questions by the observer. That’s the magic of art,” Liles said.

Charlotte’s mural was one of the first Black Lives Matter streetscapes that gave multiple artists a chance to express their art, with different artists bringing each letter to life in their own unique way.

Lo’Vonia Parks helped with the letter “B” and could hear the conversations in the crowd as she painted.

“A lot of people were having these hard conversations about racism and about the movement,” Parks said. “I overheard a man talking to another man. It was two white men and one said, ‘I didn’t really get it’ — I’m assuming he was talking about BLM — ‘But now I’m beginning to understand a little bit more.’ ”

Artist Demetris Washington, known as bamr_theartist on Instagram, in front of The Brickhouse Gallery and Art Complex in Sacramento, Calif., in August 2020. (Photo courtesy of Demetris Washington)

Parks says she suddenly realized the impact the art was having.

“That’s the whole point of this art — to open the door to the conversation. Not everyone is going to be woke. Some people have to see something to believe it, and for that man, he needed to see it. As an artist, you hope you make a difference, you hope somebody sees what you’re doing and acknowledges it, and that’s what he did in that moment.

“I’m not saying the mural cured racism, but that man having that moment is part of the puzzle to help that along — and I felt this is why I’m here doing what I’m doing.”

Atlanta artist Sharanda Wilburn, known as SAW, had a similar awakening when she heard from Breonna Taylor’s family after finishing a mural of the 26-year-old woman, who was shot and killed by police while she slept.

“It was emotional. Breonna’s aunt was speechless,” Wilburn said. “She liked the mural and she talked about how she was as a person. When I spoke with Breonna’s father, he was just telling me how appreciative he was of me painting her portrait. It was very shocking and touching, and it shows how my art can speak to people.”

Washington admits being a part of the murals has been a mix of ups and downs. Not long after he finished the Sacramento mural, he was asked to do something similar in Palo Alto, California, a predominantly white community in Silicon Valley.

“We were there painting, and there were racist white people heckling us. The mayor heard about it and he came out to apologize and support us,” Washington said. “But it was like, holy crap, we’re here painting these letters. Life is beautiful — I say that a lot — and hell yeah, that was an experience. The governor even posted the Sacramento one on Instagram. So yeah, that was an experience.

“It was empowerment.”

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Michelle Boudin

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Episode The art of protest