On the morning of April before a Minneapolis jury found ex-cop Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd, Leesa Kelly awoke from a nightmare. As so often in the past year, she cried out anger and hopelessness.
Kelly, who runs a self-help blog for women in color, had been marching since last May helping raise funds around town when demonstrations broke out after Chauvin was caught on film and his knee was pressed into Floyd’s neck, a fatal act , who moved millions of people to take part in the largest anti-racial protests in decades.
But “nothing seemed to suppress this feeling in me: just deep despair and anger,” she said. It was from this troubled place that the idea of becoming Memorialize the Movement arose, a project to preserve and display the plywood panels that business owners had put on their shop fronts out of concerns about vandalism by protesters, many of whom instead turned the panels into art: murals and others moment-inspired works applied in paint, spray paint, pen, pencil, marker and chalk. From May 21-23, many will be featured in a large-scale exhibition entitled “Justice for George: Messages from the People” in Phelps Field Park, just steps from where George Floyd was killed.
Kelly realized that the Boards were telling a story – of George Floyd’s life and death and how they resonated in her community and country.
“That’s why it’s so important that it be preserved,” said Kelly, who had little to do with the art world before this project. “Because this is black history, and not just black history, but American history.”
Motivated by a similar impulse, other groups in New York and Chicago are collecting and transforming these symbols of unrest into objects that testify to a breathtaking year – in the hope of answering in their own way the question of how to remember their cities endured sewing together a national portrait.
Kelly, Save the Boards Minneapolis group, and volunteers have been collecting the pieces for almost a year. Finding them and identifying their creators was a scattershot endeavor. Some of the artists signed their often elaborate murals and added their websites or Instagram handles, but others didn’t know how to sign their names or wanted to remain anonymous. Also, Kelly didn’t know from an early age what the shopkeepers had planned for their boards or how receptive they would be to collecting.
Kelly passed around some quickly made leaflets in mid-June and knocked door to door on the main streets. “Most of these people never had to go into their stores and didn’t know what to do with the murals,” she said.
At first it was just Kelly and her boyfriend, armed with a drill, gloves, and a jeep, hauling planks, which are often eight feet tall and can each weigh 60 pounds. After primarily recruiting volunteers through social media, they have collected more than 800 boards to date.
The collected plywood panels were stored in an air-conditioned room, and volunteers from the Midwest Art Conservation Center, a nonprofit art and artifact preservation organization in the twin cities, have since come together to maintain their condition, including mitigating problems of moisture and artifacts Mold affecting the flaky, brittle material. “We’re just going to let them live their natural lives somehow,” said Kelly.
All boards are also digitally archived with the help of the Urban Art Mapping team at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities. The collection is expected to be available online by the end of the year.
Memorialize the Movement has longer-term plans after the show this month: to become a nonprofit, raise a public memorial, and help the community learn about museum work and art handling. However, those plans were delayed by the death of Daunte Wright, a black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, about 10 miles from Chauvin’s trial, in April.
“Now when we look at this exhibition that we are holding to commemorate the life and death of a killed black man, we have to think about how we include this other killed black man. And we have to think about what we’re going to do next year for his anniversary, ”said Kelly. “It’s just so much.”
Last June, the double crisis of police brutality and pandemic came a great relief to Neil Hamamoto, founder of Worthless Studios. A nonprofit that supports the creation of public art while driving around Manhattan, which he often does to clear his mind.
“The city was very quiet, most of SoHo was completely boarded up,” said Hamamoto, who uses plywood material in his own art. “It just clicked a little that all of these companies paid so much money to protect their windows and property inside, but what would happen to this material when they reopened? Where is this material going? (During the main months of the protest, a single sheet of plywood in New York cost more than $ 90, down from $ 25 a sheet.) Hamamoto saw some wood waiting to be disposed of in the street and decided to get it from which the plywood was growing Protection project.
Hamamoto said his goal is to create safe outdoor targets for New Yorkers during the pandemic while also asking “emotionally and politically complex questions” about pain, anger, protest, property and memory. The place of national monuments in American history is also paramount, he said.
Worthless Studios collected more than 200 boards and launched an open call for artists with the intention of selecting five. More than 150 advertised. Selected individuals received studio space, tools, manufacturing and installation assistance, as well as a grant of $ 2,000 and a materials budget of $ 500. The smallest installation required around 25 boards, while one of the larger works closer to 60 was used. A sculpture was installed in each of New York’s five boroughs that month.
In Manhattan, Behin Ha Design Studio’s “Be Heard” will be placed in Thomas Paine Park. “In Honor of Black Lives Matter” by KaN Landscape Design and Caroline Mardok will be performing at Poe Park in the Bronx. Michael Zelehoski’s “Migeulito” in McCarren Park, Brooklyn; Tony DiBernardo’s “Open Stage” at Alice Austen House on Staten Island; and “RockIt Black” by Tanda Francis in Queensbridge Park, Queens. Most of them will be on view until November 1st.
Behrang Behin and Ann Ha, the founders of the architecture firm Behin Ha Design Studio, whose contribution is a large-format megaphone made of plywood, were drawn to the idea of working with materials that had played a role in socially and politically significant events. “As architects, we are used to seeing materials not only as physical matter for construction, but also as existing in the cultural and social area,” said the duo via email. With that in mind, they viewed the plywood sheets as “cultural artifacts rather than interchangeable materials”.
Francis has created several site-specific monumental public works of art in New York, including “BIGGIE” (2014) and “Everyone Breaks” (2015-2016). Her work often addresses diasporic Africans with large-format masks and faces. She was at home with her young son when events played out last spring and felt helpless that she could not attend. It is very stressful “to understand where the country is in their minds”. And then came this project. “OK, I have a direction and I can use the actual material that wasn’t on the street and all that energy,” she recalled.
Its column-shaped sculpture contains polished concrete and aluminum mirrors – “a stark black figure” topped with a glowing beacon that faces east toward the sprawling residential projects in Queensbridge.
“RockItBlack” will soon have a digital component that Francis would like to add to over time. First of all, it will likely be a QR code that leads to a curated music experience. Later she hopes to include a list of black-owned companies or projects that visitors associate with “people who drive blackness.”
Efforts have also been made in Chicago to redesign these plywood panels since last year when a dozen election registration booths were made from about 150 graffiti boards collected from shop windows across the city prior to the election. The stands, collectively known as the Boards of Change, were a partnership between local artists, the City of Chicago and When We All Vote, a non-profit voting initiative chaired by Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the booths were relocated to various locations in Chicago and displayed in meeting places such as public libraries and galleries in neighborhoods with historically lower turnout, mainly in areas with a majority of black or brown residents. Area managers and artists spread the word.
The stands were designed by FCB Chicago, an advertising agency that worked with Bobby Hughes, a Chicago-based craftsman, who helped set them up.
Boards of Change aimed to “get the votes we heard from the streets during the George Floyd protests,” said Perri Irmer, CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History, where the Stalls are kept. It is planned to display the stands after the museum reopens, where they will serve as a reminder of the 2020 protests and as a tool for future elections. The QR codes embossed on the stands remain active so that visitors can register for the upcoming midterm and presidential elections.
Many of the panels used to build the stands came from the Paint the City project, founded by curator Missy Perkins and artist Barrett Keithley. Paint the City, which convened in June, brought together more than 60 artists to apply art to boarded-up shop fronts in over a dozen neighborhoods, pay the artists and provide them with materials. An exhibition of more than 100 of these panels is planned for this summer in the DuSable Museum.
Perkins and Keithley, who had known each other for nearly a decade, had already painted alleys in the city to create safer thoroughfares. When Covid-19 hit Floyd along with the protests, they quickly turned to focus on the boards.
“We were out there when things were going bad,” Keithley said, recalling a few moments when he’d come into clashes while painting. But the demonstrators and police made him work. “I got a passport because I put up positive works of art,” he said. “That came like a seal of approval.”
“It was important because time was, quite simply, important. They say artists talk to their time and that’s exactly what we did, ”Keithley continued. “This is the medium we chose and we were loud about it.”