Turning To Art In A Time Of Crisis

by Alicia Gregory, Americans for the Arts

In times of turmoil, the arts help us heal, communicate, challenge status quo, and move forward together as a nation. The timeless role of the artist and activist is alive and well, even when so much else has changed.

When Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot and killed on August 9, 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO, parts of the nation exploded in grief and outrage. Thousands took to the streets to protest for justice, and thousands more turned to art as a way to confront and process the events that have taken the lives of Brown and many others.

In this time of crisis, as in many others, people turned to art as a way to affirm their humanity, challenge the status quo, and imagine a better future. After Brown’s death, imagery of hands raised up in surrender—the pose Brown was in when he was gunned down—and the hashtag #blacklivesmatter became the central image and message of a nationwide movement, extending far outside Missouri. And in Ferguson, plank-board hands installed on the lawns of Ferguson homes rose from the ground. The St. Louis American newspaper was repurposed as a canvas as one artist painted protesters and civil rights leaders over the day’s grim reports. A glass casket was marched through the streets, reflecting the faces it passed.

The vision for the reflective casket came from 26-year-old De Andrea Nichols—a community arts organizer, designer, Community Engagement Manager at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and a steady figure on the ground in Ferguson. “I wanted people to be able to see themselves in this struggle,” she said. “I wanted to evoke empathy. It could have been any one of us.” Nichols joined a local “ARTivists” group led by organizer Elizabeth Vega to create plastic shields with the faces of Malcolm X, Coretta Scott King, Michael Brown, and other Black figures painted on the front. “The point was to shield us from the police who were always in riot gear no matter what. We responded to their antagonizing with art.” While the spirit on the ground was participatory, there were always bystanders, admiring the art from the sidelines, asking to take a photo with a banner, shield, or sign, peeking out the windows of their homes. “Art has been transformative not only to those who are creating these artifacts and tangibles, but also to those experiencing it as viewers,” Nichols says. “There is intrinsic value…art highlights people’s willingness to be vulnerable and transparent with each other, and it is the way to communicate how we feel about what is going on.” This exchange between artist and viewer creates space for conversation, understanding, and even education. And not only for those in Ferguson, but for millions of people watching intently from all over the world.

Damon Davis, a 29-year-old St. Louis-based interdisciplinary artist and the creator of some of the most powerful images of the movement, holds this sentiment close: “The role of the artist in every movement is to create, educate, and inspire. Through those elements we cause disruption and challenge the status quo.” Davis photographed, in stark black and white, the raised hands of peaceful protestors who have played a vital role in the movement. They were then enlarged into posters that Davis pasted on the boarded-up fronts of business damaged in the looting and rioting of more violent protests, with the consent of business owners. The raised hands, in all their power and simplicity, speak: We are here. We matter.

Download the full article from the Spring 2015 edition of Arts Link.

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