The irony has always troubled Raafi Rivero. “People love black athletes,” he said. “But they don’t love black people.”
In July 2013, Rivero, a lifelong sports fanatic, found renewed resonance when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin. That same weekend, Rivero saw the film “Fruitvale Station” about the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 Was Also Black.
“I’ve cried several times this weekend and felt really powerless,” said Rivero from Santa Fe last month during a video conference interview. “I was wondering what can I do?”
Rivero, a filmmaker with a background in design, put his emotions into a work of art that eventually became part of a series that moved from digital space to real world recognition across the country. Rivero used Adobe Illustrator to create an image of a black and yellow basketball jersey with “Unarmed” on the front and “Martin 17” on the back. Trayvon Martin was 17 years old and unarmed when he was shot. When Rivero read about his death, he kept seeing a photo of Martin in a black and yellow soccer jersey.
Rivero, 43, continued to think of other unarmed black victims in the years following the Zimmerman ruling. His illustrations for digital jerseys included Eric Garner, who was killed in Staten Island in July 2014 by a New York police officer with an illegal chokehold. Three weeks later, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer killed Michael Brown. By then, Rivero had developed an intended design system for the project: each jersey bears the colors of the victim’s local sports team with a jersey number corresponding to the age of the person at death. Stars, if any, indicate the number of times the person was shot.
“It felt like people were trying to explain these murders using the ‘bad apples’ argument, but it just keeps happening. There is a straight line through these murders, ”said Rivero. “And it felt empowered to say something that way.”
Rivero’s path kept the names of the victims alive unlike other protests by incorporating them into the iconography of America’s most popular pastimes. “My father always said sport is democratic,” said Rivero. “The only arena in which a black and a white can compete against each other on an even playing field.”
Sport also carries the nostalgic symbolism of youthful innocence. “One of the best moments when you have your jersey was your number. I just want to wear it all the time, ”he said. “Jerseys were sacred objects to me.”
“Unarmed” remained an unpredictable social media project for the next few years as Rivero juggled corporate and media design work and grappled with the emotional pain of starting new rates.
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Then George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May 2020. Rivero tearfully stated that he had been unable to bring himself to watch the video of the murder for more than a week and initially had no interest in making another jersey. But as protests against Black Lives Matter gained momentum across New York and across the country, he found the determination to devise another. “My life changed when I designed the George Floyd jersey,” said Rivero.
A friend of Rivero’s, who owns a print shop, called him the morning after he shared the Floyd design on Instagram. He suggested making large vinyl prints of Rivero’s jersey designs for release. “Less than a week later, they were across from the Barclays Center,” said Rivero.
The downtown Brooklyn arena had become a center for daily protests against Black Lives Matter, and Rivero’s art hung with dark irony on the boarded-up windows of nearby sports company Modelle’s, the sneaker boutique Kith, and Crunch Fitness.
Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA design department at the School of Visual Arts, was so impressed with the use of commercial branding to convey a targeted social message that he interviewed Rivero for DesignObserver, a website dedicated to design and culture . “Raafi Rivero quotes popular culture in an obvious and nuanced way,” Heller said in an email interview with the New York Times. “The viewer is not immediately aware of the message, which allows its response to creep in instead of hitting you on the head – although it is.”
Although sport has traditionally not invaded the art institute, the use of sport as a mediator for forms of protest has taken notice of the art world. The 2019 Whitney Biennale featured several pieces that incorporated elements of the sports world, notably Kota Ezawa’s “National Anthem,” an animated video showing NFL players kneeling during the “Stars and Stripes” to protest police violence against unarmed blacks.
“We love a work of art about protest that isn’t bombastic,” said Jane Panetta, co-curator of the museum’s branding survey. “Calm, tactile, interpretive. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest really took over the country and the more time passed, the more resonant it felt. Today it feels even more powerful. “
With “Unarmed” as a professional focus and supported by a grant from the V-Day Foundation, Rivero bought a used car, filled it with camera equipment, and left New York last fall to capture what was happening in America. Rivero visited Louisville, Kentucky, Kenosha, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Denver, posted his plays, and spoke to local residents about the tragic murders and violence in their communities. He took up the trip and used the footage to create the short film “Unarmed”. It debuted as part of YouTube’s “Black Renaissance,” an Obamas-hosted Black History Month special that was viewed more than 3.5 million times. He exhibited the jerseys at the Leon Gallery in Denver last winter.
Although Rivero left his Brooklyn apartment before starting the overland trip and has not returned since, he expects to be back later this month. He’s got another set of vinyl prints he’s getting ready to hang up, and after enough people ask about wearable jerseys, he’s in final production of a Trayvon Martin edition. If Martin’s family members agree, he will want to start selling the jersey and then create others by using the proceeds to support the victims’ families and donate to anti-racism organizations.
“If you go to a ball game in Denver instead of wearing a Jamal Murray, isn’t there someone who wants to wear an Elijah McClain jersey? I’d love to see that, ”said Rivero.