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Protest Art: Black Lives Matter

Malcolm X Black Lives Matter Mural
 Madison.com | Mural in Downtown Madison, WI depicting George Floyd and Malcolm X by artists Tony Catteruccia (@_kidtonytattoos) & Lincoln Rust (@lincolnrusttattoos)
 

The Black Lives Matter protests and the recent conversations surrounding racial inequalities spurred millions of people to take action against injustice. One of the most moving acts of protest and anti-racism was seen this past summer when thousands of individuals across the country moved in unison to memorialize the Black Lives Matter protests through their art. From graffiti to paintings, to graphic designs, artwork played a central role in conveying the message behind the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Artists have always had a space in activism, and in the last hundred years, their work has become increasingly relevant in bringing awareness to social justice issues. This past summer we saw art and activism blend together, once again, as murals and protest art cropped up in cities all across the United States. We believe that art can be used as a tool for resistance, that the worlds of art and activism are inherently intertwined. In honor of Black History Month, we thought we’d look back to the countless pieces of artwork that were created this past summer. 

George Floyd Black Lives Matter Mural Kqed.org | A mural in downtown Oakland depicting George Floyd by @amendtdk @nvnovr @agentdecoy and @somarbar on Instagram 

 

Breonna Taylor Mural Black Lives Matter Summer 2020 Credit: Pete Rosos oaklandside.org | A mural depicting Breonna Taylor by The People's Conservatory collective

 

The significance and reach of the Black Lives Matter movement are undeniable. Polls conducted over the summer suggested that 15 to 26 million people participated in these protests internationally. Over 2,000 cities in 60 countries across the world marched in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and took to calling out their own governments for mistreatment and inequality. Although 97% of the protests were peaceful, the few that weren’t prompted officials in larger cities to board up storefronts. Even after the dust of the protests settled, the boarded-up shops remained.

Mlive.com | Boarded up shops in Kalamazoo

 

“There are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized...And we had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city. That message is to the American people that black lives matter, black humanity matters, and we as a city raise that up.”
~Muriel Bowser, Mayor of D.C.
forbes.com

 

Almost immediately after the boards went up, business owners, community members, and activists alike banned together to keep the Black Lives Matter movement alive, turning the stark plywood barriers into art. In the weeks following the protests, murals began to cover cities in swaths of color and poignant messages, all seeking to channel weighty emotions into artwork in an attempt to heal. In every city where protests occurred, ephemeral artwork followed.  The plywood barriers provided the canvas for peaceful expressions of anger, sadness, and empathy. 

Black Lives Matter Mural Summer 2020 Fox5dc.com | Photo: Megan Rowls. Artist unknown. Murals in downtown D.C. created from the plywood boards protecting businesses. 

 

Many of the pieces inspired by Black Lives Matter came in the form of murals. As an art form, murals are inherently revolutionary and seek to bring relevant issues to the forefront of the public's mind. Often large and impossible to ignore, the usage of murals is especially appropriate for the Black Lives Matter movement given their ability to make inequality personal to each community. 

Shut It Down Mural theverge.com | Photo: Vjeran Pavic. Artist unknown. “Shut It Down” mural in Oakland, CA.

 

These murals brought with them the full force of racist sentiment in the United States. We saw the true colors of many Americans, those who refused to confront their inherent biases and instead stood as agitators, and those who took criticism as a learning experience and vowed to do better. We cannot talk about progress in the United States if we refuse to acknowledge our own complacency in perpetuating inequality. These murals forced the country to face issues plaguing Black communities head-on. 

Black Lives Matter Mural Summer 2020 Fox5dc.com | Photo: Megan Rowls. Artist unknown. Murals in downtown D.C. created from the plywood boards protecting businesses. 

 

"We really believe that public art is the highest form of art because of its accessibility..." 
~Local Color SJ
Abc7.com

 

God Is A Black Woman Mural Supamodu.com | Artist unknown. God Is A Black Woman painting in SOHO. 

 

The art carried a sense of urgency, for it is rare to feel the weight of history pressing down on the present. Capitalizing on the golden moment of clarity was crucial, so people took to the streets to ensure that the movement would not be misinterpreted by future generations. Images were created using bold colors and stunning depictions to emphasize not only the beauty of black culture in the U.S. but the tragedy of oppression befalling such beauty. 



“This is stuff people will learn about in history books...It was important to capture that moment, at least for people I knew.”
~Kenechi Unachukwu
thecaptimes.com

 

Black Lives Matter Mural paloaltoonline.com | "Black Lives Matter" mural on Hamilton Avenue across Palo Alto City Hall. Courtesy Benny Villarreal.

 

After the protests this summer, the Black Lives Matter movement is no longer on the fringes of social justice, it has become a symbol of anti-racism around the world. 

Black Lives Matter will go down in history as a turning point for our nation, as the movement that woke our nation from a centuries-long stupor. The Black Lives Matter movement is not just necessary, it is essential for the preservation of our democracy. This movement exemplifies the key tenant our country was founded on: that we are all created equal.  To stand in opposition to the movement is to oppose the notions of equality, justice, and the possibility of peace.  

Black Lives Matter Mural forbes.com | Ashley Williams, her 10-year-old daughter Marley McNealy and Williams' sister Mo McNealy work alongside volunteers and staff African American Art & Culture Complex work to paint massive letters spelling "Black Lives Matter" across Fulton Street

 

Although many of the plywood murals have been taken down, virtual galleries have been created to keep their stories alive. We’ve collected several of those virtual exhibits below.

 

Virtual Exhibitions:

Black Art Rising

Say Their Names, Stanford University

Let's March On, Windgate Museum of Art, Hendrix College

rise up. Dupont Underground

The Art of Protest, Compound Gallery, Bronx, New York

Murals That Matter: Activism Through Public Art, National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.

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