Three years ago today, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born.
It was born after Trayvon Martin. It grew after Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It sprung from decades of injustice and disregard.
And as it grew, it planted seeds in artists’ minds. And from these seeds grew images of anger, solace, fear, hope, empowerment. Some artists reap signs of peace and serenity, but many find the need to dig deep. For some, it is a call to harvest images of rage. And some crave the therapeutic reprieve that comes from meditating in the garden of pictures they conjure up in their minds.
With all that in mind, we gathered some of the best artwork inspired by #BlackLivesMatter, and asked the artists about their creative process.
Tes One reacted to Trayvon Martin’s death and the state’s initial inability to bring charges against his killer. “Calling out the injustice became far more important than any hesitation I was personally feeling,” he says. “The message is all that mattered. ‘Stand Our Ground’ marks the first time I felt so compelled to use my art to address a social issue like this publicly.”
After a grand jury declined to indict the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner, Carly Larsson says she drew an image on location in New York City’s Foley Square to “record the protest, and to capture the mood and energy.”
That grand jury’s decision inspired Carson Ellis to comb through the database of police killings that resulted in fatalities of unarmed African Americans. She picked 20 of them to illustrate and read everything she could about them. “I cried and cried,” says Ellis, who is white. “It brought me face to face with very hard truths about being black in America, and about being white in America. I never doubted the existence of racism, but after this, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of it.”
Ellis’s image was widely shared, so she got “to experience plenty of backlash. . . . I heard from overt racists, which was unsettling. But I also heard from a lot of people who made me pause. The angry wives of cops, for example, who were already worrying daily about the safety of their husbands and who felt that an image like this, with a headline like this, only made their husbands’ jobs more dangerous. And once from a police officer with an account of a near-shooting, the incredible stress of the job, and a plea for understanding. I had and have so much empathy for them. So I guess another effect of making this was that it revealed other perspectives.”
Nikkolas Smith says that when he visually interprets these events, “there’s a bittersweet sense of reluctant sadness and gratifying accomplishment. My goal of sparking thought and action through art was realized but it comes at a tragically high price.”
Ti-Rock Moore explains that “Political or protest art: both are suitable ways to describe my work. My responsibility as a white ally, artist and activist is not simply to acknowledge racism outright, but to target those namely fellow white Americans who turn a blind eye to systemic oppression.” And perhaps she speaks for most artists when she says, “I have been an activist for decades, but I know that my art speaks much more loudly than I ever could.”
The manner of drawing inspiration varies widely from artist to artist. “To come up with these concepts,” Curt Merlo says, “I have to sit quietly and think deeply about one subject for a long period of time almost like a form of meditation. This really helps me to understand the situation or at least the feelings at the core of these issues.
“When I illustrated this piece back in early 2015, there was great excitement and uproar about the rising black voice in America,” Merlo continues. “There were lots of protests and outrage, which caused the Black Lives Matter movement to spread like wildfire. I was trying to capture that excitement and the hope that was in people’s voices, everyone’s energy was palpable.”
The “Portrait of Michael Brown” is an illustrated opinion piece by Andrea Levy, which she created for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The shooting “struck so deep into my own sense of endless futility that I realized I couldn’t begin to imagine it from the perspective of those involved,” Levy says. “How could I possibly relate? So in the moment, for me, Michael Brown became a poster child — literally.”
With this image, Levy says, “I was aiming to capture one sober observation: identity. Or, more accurately, lack of identity. With few accompanying words, the image is a silhouette. A portrait of a figure for whom we often don’t even bother to define features, history or context: the young black man in America. Essentially unseen, unless of course there’s fame, crime or controversy. It’s a crude outline that at quick glance looks intimidating, but upon closer observation is actually the depiction of one of our society’s most vulnerable. A figure facing overwhelming odds. It’s a black shadow immobilized in a white frame.”
Chris Kindred was a college student in 2014 when he realized that he was running out of the emotional strength to attend every demonstration around his campus in Richmond. “Speak Up!” was his attempt to “uplift and empower those on the ground” and gave him the energy to combat racism “at face value at every turn.”
Nina Chanel Abney says she will continue to create abstract paintings that will examine the relationship between police officers and minority communities, until she sees progress. “My work talks about the now,” Abney says. “And this is what is, unfortunately, largely part of the conversation, and will continue to be until it changes.”
Dáreece Walker’s “Made in the USA” self-portrait, he says, announces that “I am made in the USA but somehow I’m not treated as a full American. I’m treated as a black American, like cardboard, disposable, easily replaced.”
Artist Adria Fruitos conceived of a black stain out of the officer’s weapon as a symbol of horror and fatal error.
Al Jazeera illustrator Dolly Li “was living in Oakland during the #BLM protests that sprung out of Ferguson. One night I found myself standing face-to-face with Oakland riot cops, terrified and wondering about how much more terrifying this would be if I was a young black man, standing in front of a police line, demanding justice.
“It’s an emotional push and pull to create [this] imagery,” Li says. “Everything from choosing a color palette to depicting a range of silhouettes to balancing the use of an extremely charged color like red need to be calculated and well thought out. #BlackLivesMatter should not be reduced to just words on paper, written for an English-speaking American audience.” But, Li asks, “is art enough? It’s romantic to believe that art can change the world, but the truth is, we still need so much more than that as a society.”
“I illustrate picture books for a living,”Christian Robinson says. “Simplicity is my friend. I made these as a way of processing and grieving the [killing of] Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
“It’s therapy,” he adds. “Especially in the face of tragedy.”