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The art of Black Lives Matter

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Photos from last Thursday’s protest at City Hall, where Black Lives Matters supporters flooded the lower floor of the building, show Larkin Goldsmith Mead’s late 19th-century sculpture The Father of Waters rising far above the protesters’ heads. The image provided a metaphor, illustrating the enormous task of breaking down white supremacist systems, as the oversized, faux-European deity, made in a neoclassical style, towered over the city’s central building. 

Fortunately, the Black Lives Matters movement has artists of its own who are working to build strength, offer hope, and give voice to the communities that have sought to speak truth to the powers that be. Whether it’s performers sharing their talents at the Justice4Jamar memorial concert, artists contributing to visually compelling signs and art for marches and rallies, dancers bringing their energy and rhythm to the movement, or artists adding to the cause through words and images posted on social media, the BLM movement is rich with a diverse collage of voices. 

Junauda Petrus, a performance and aerial artist who next week opens an installation piece at Pillsbury House for Naked Stages, has been involved with Black Lives Matter ever since the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown.

“This is some really intensely opening times,” Petrus says. “For me as a black artist (I should say, as an artist), I know my interest is in wanting to create work that is beautiful and complex, that allows people to support in dealing with the difficult and complicated truths.” Art, she says, is one of the many tools people can utilize to dismantle oppressive structures.

For recent protests surrounding Jamar Clark, Petrus has brought artwork created originally created for last spring’s MayDay Parade with In the Heart of the Beast, which had a Black Lives Matter theme, and additional signs and posters from the artist-activist community. She also composed a poem, called “COULD WE PLEASE GIVE THE POLICE DEPARTMENTS TO THE GRANDMOTHERS?,” which she posted on social media.

“Artists are inherent dreamers and people who create beauty and immensity out of what’s invisible and what’s unknown, out of seemingly nothing,” she says.

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Kenna-Camara Cottman, whose troupe Voice of Culture has danced and drummed at BLM protests and events, says that the movement’s goals align with that of the company’s. “We are a group that is trying to work on black liberation from an artistic standpoint and from an intergenerational standpoint,” she says. 

When Michael Brown was murdered last year, Cottman says organizers from BLM called the group to “do what we do,” she says.

“That’s what Voice of Culture always did: We educated our children about being black and African people,” she says.

Her teenage daughter is growing into a youth activist, which inspires Cottman. “In order to keep her engaged in the things I have to offer as her mom, I have to make sure we are relevant,” she says. At a recent protest, all of her daughter’s friends joined in the dancing. “It reminds us, yeah, that’s the real thing, there’s no stage that can hold us.”

In addition to creating work at the protests themselves, artists also have found ways to project the movement outward to other spaces and communities. Ifrah Mansour, who like Cottman and Petrus is associated with the Million Artist Movement, is helping to organize a storytelling event that features East African and African-American artists and community organizers to find common ground and share experiences. 

Mansour has also been busy using her art and creativity in response to the recent murders of East African boys in the Seward neighborhood. “I’m looking at how we need to be there for one another,” she says. “What does that look like? Sometimes it’s going to be a march. Or does it mean coming over to the West Bank and chatting with the community about East African boys that are getting killed as well?”

Ananya Chatterjea, meanwhile, brings the discussion into her classroom at the University of Minnesota. This semester, she’s teaching a theoretical framework for encouraging students in advanced levels to think about making and producing meaning in their work. Chatterjea says she’s been remaking her syllabus as she goes along. When BLM had a march last week, she gave them an assignment. 

“I said, ‘You saw what happened in Bataclan. If all art centers were to disappear, and the steps of the Northrop was the only site that performance could be made, what would you create?’” The students stepped up to the challenge, organizing a response to the Justice4Jamar protest using their bodies.

Chatterjea has also taken some students to the BLM encampment, though not during class time. “We were shivering with the cold. Your heart beats so fast because the police are in those cranes that go up super high. What kind of dancing is possible when your body is this state?” she says.

Check out the video below, by V. Paul Virtucio, to see what her students came up with.