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  • Writer's pictureArts Angle Vantage Journalist

GenZ reflects on art exhibit recognizing Breonna Taylor's life, death

Arts Angle Vantage Contributors: On’Dria Gibson, Debra Murray, Gracie Vanover

Editor: Elizabeth Kramer

The vivid portrait of Breonna Taylor glowed in the spotlight of a dark room with black walls at the Speed Art Museum this spring when three Arts Bureau Edge journalists visited the “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” exhibit.

Arts Bureau Edge journalists at the Speed Art Museum in June. Debra Murray in front of Amy Sherald's portrait of Breonna Taylor; On'Dria GIbson taking in Jon P. Cherry's work "Open Up the Cells," (Sept. 24, 2020) taken during the protests following Taylor's murder; and Murray with Gracie Vanover among works by former Louisville natives Sam Gilliam and Noel W Anderson, and Lorna Simpson of Brooklyn. Photos by Elizabeth Kramer.

Male High School graduate On’Dria Gibson described Amy Sherald’s 54x43-inch painting as “so beautiful and vibrant up close. It made me feel like this is how she will always be remembered — as still and beautiful.”

Western Kentucky University student Debra Murray noted the “blue background and a similar blue dress that puts emphasis on Breonna’s skin color.” These details, she writes, “like an engagement ring on her left hand or the necklace with a cross dangling from her neck” and her determined and peaceful demeanor prevail in the face of the heartbreaking murder behind the events that generated this exhibit.

• Gracie Vanover, a student at Indiana University Southeast, observed how Sherald depicted “Taylor in an elegant stance — hand on her hip, with an enchanting stare. “This artwork felt different to even be near,” wrote Vanover, “as if passers felt to be near it emotions might overcome them.”

After the pandemic halted classes at schools in March 2020, these journalists and their peers learned of Taylor and her murder as details surfaced on social media. Some later participated in protests against her murder and police brutality. Gibson recalled “scrolling through social media and seeing all the outrage” while Vanover wrote of “so many news stations were spewing different stories.”

Visiting “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” each journalist also chose other pieces that resonated with them in the three sections cited in the exhibit’s title. Each section acted as a corridor leading to Taylor’s portrait.

Arts Bureau Edge journalists On'Dria Gibson, Debra Murray and Gracie Vanover visited the Speed Art Museum's "Promise, Witness, Remembrance" and wrote their impressions on the work and the events and the woman, Breonna Taylor, whose death inspired the exhibit.

“Promise” — Works embodied reflections by artists referencing the promises, not necessarily fulfilled, that this country has made to its citizens in documents, songs, symbols and more.

For Murray, those promises reverberated as “empty” and “hypocrisy” — particularly as they relate to minorities. But one piece was a bit different and resonated strongly with her.

• Murray: A work of neon light, an unfamiliar art form to be displayed in a museum, was Glenn Ligon’s “Aftermath.” (It was one of two neon works in “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.”) The red light on the clean white background read “Nov. 4, 2020,” the day after the last presidential election and one representing a time of uncertainty and hope. Neon was originally used for advertising like the signs seen at restaurants. But in the 50 years, artists have taken the idea to provide more meaning behind the bright lights. While broken promises abound, this piece highlighted a promising moment for change.

Slides: Ed Hamilton's 2000 untitled sculpture of a Union Army soldier in the foreground and Glenn Ligon's work "Aftermath" giving the date following the 2020 U.S. Presidential election (photo by Bill Roughen). Nari Ward's "We the People" created using shoelaces (photo by Xavier Burrell). Courtesy Speed Art Museum.

Vanover saw how works gave sight to the broken statements we’ve been told in the past.

• Vanover: “We the People” is an every so popular phrase stated at the beginning of the Constitution that many of us learn about throughout our schooling. Nari Ward’s work made up of these three words spark all the misconceptions that come with those words. When the Constitution was drafted “we the people” didn’t mean enslaved people or women. It meant only white men. It honestly shows the indirect suffering people went through to be able to even consider themselves free or equal.

Louisville artist Ed Hamilton’s “Untitled,” a bust of an African American Union soldier who would’ve served in the Civil War. The statue brings a viewer’s eyes face to face with one who could have been an enslaved person recruited by the Union with the promise of freedom. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slaves waited another two years before officially being free, keeping them on their toes on whether or not that promise was real. Most of American politics feel just like this promise during the Civil War. America has been in a constant state since its founding of “Can I trust this vow, or should I turn away while I can?”

“Witness” — Artists’ expressions on historical periods and experiences involving race.

Works in Noel Anderson’s series — created by erasing the faces of Black women in the pages of used Ebony magazines — struck both Gibson and Murray.

• Gibson: Leaving almost nothing but the eyes, the work compels the viewer to stare directly into and face to make it out for themselves.

• Murray: The images have stuck with me since I left the museum. I remember staring at the artwork trying to imagine what the women originally looked like. Most of their features had been erased, except for eyes and lips on many of the pieces.

Lorna Simpson’s large photo montage “Same,” another work centered on identity, captivated Gibson. The following text accompanied the artist's work:

“were disliked for the same reasons”

"were not related”

“read the news account and knew it could have easily been them”

“had never met”

• Gibson: The two little girls seen, shoulders up, from the back — with their hair connected through braids to symbolize their share in culture and identity seem to be the same. But are they? “Same” signifies how often people of other backgrounds homogenize or generalize black characteristics and cultures along the diaspora. Different dialects, fashions and features can separate us, but our blackness is what ties us together — even the oppression that comes with it.

Slides: Works by several artists who documented historical events, including large protests, that followed Breonna Taylor's murder (photo by Xavier Burrell). "Same" by Lorna Simpson with Toya Northington, the Speed Art Museum's community engagement strategist talking before the work during a tour (photo by Jon Cherry). Works by Noel W Anderson including "Woman there is..." (top); "he's Mean!," (middle left), "Sly Wink" (middle right), "Rinse" (bottom left), and "Check the skin" (bottom right) (photo by Bill Roughen). Rashid Johnson's "November 3rd" (photo by Xavier Burrell). Courtesy Speed Art Museum.

Vanover was drawn to photographs referencing Louisville with the protests against police brutality and a particularly energized painting in part reflecting isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

• Vanover: The works allow museum goers to see the tragedy that people in our country have suffered. Rashid Johnson’s extension of his “Anxious Men” series, represents tensions people felt with being stuck inside and stressful events like the presidential election. The painting has a set of red boxes with small circle-like brushstrokes inside the boxes. Those strokes, thick and tense, make the image seem rough and rigid, kind of like this past year.

Photos by local photographers covering the local Louisville Black Lives Matter protests enable someone to visualize the pain the community went through after the loss of Taylor. These works, particularly those by Erik Branch, show up close the suffering many men and women went through to stand up for Taylor and for other members of their community so tragically lost.

“Remembrance” — The two-room section with Sherald’s portrait of Taylor — the painting gets a room to itself with a timeline of Taylor’s life — features a preceding room of artworks based on lives lost due to racial hatred.

Slides: "Lost Boys: AKA BB" by Kerry James Marshall; "Unarmed" by Nick Cave; María Magdalena Campos-Pons' "Butterfly Eyes (for Breonna Taylor)" from the series "In the year of the pandemic, in the month of the awakening" (photos by Xavier Burrell). Images of the timeline documenting moments in Breonna Taylor's life. (First photo by Bill Roughen. Second photo by Jon Cherry). Courtesy Speed Art Museum.

• Gibson: Kerry James Marshall’s “Lost Boys: AKA BB” portrays an African American boy who is a victim of his environment. Whether it’s police violence or the violence from his peers, he’s right there in the heart of it. I think the image shows similarities between the Lost Boys of Sudan and the lost boys of the American inner city. (The the Lost Boys was first dubbed for a group in J.M. Barrie’s book about Peter Pan and in recent decade ascribed to orphans from South Sudan.) Two sides of the same coin, they both are affected by systems of oppression.

• Vanover: On a more national level, Nick Cave’s sculpture “Unarmed” features a hand slowly raised to surrender shows — the power behind the phrase popular by protesters “hands up, don’t shoot.” The piece was designed in honor of Michael Brown after he was gunned down in 2014. This evokes the loss of those who have fallen due to gun violence. The concept of this piece, unarmed, raises ideas and emotions associated with not only police brutality, but also school shootings and other episodes where innocent people fall victims to heinous actions.

• Murray: Then there is María Magdalena Campos-Pons' mixed media work “Butterfly Eyes.” Beautiful and vibrant flowers created with water colors and digital artwork on archival paper focus on Taylor in a more personal way. In the description of the artwork, the artist says butterflies represent memory, meaning Breonna Taylor is still with us.

Amy Sherald's portrait "Breonna Taylor." Courtesy Speed Art Museum.

The exhibit further deepens the presence of the woman and the impact of her loss with a timeline adjacent from Sherald’s portrait of Taylor.

• Murray: That timeline takes up the wall opposite of the painting and describes different moments from Taylor’s life through her mother’s eye. It highlights Tamika Palmer bringing her daughters to Louisville to give them more opportunity. When Breonna graduated from high school, the timeline described what she thought her future would be like. It all made the piece more personal, impactful and tied in details that otherwise might be overlooked.

So many works in “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” powerfully conveyed history, personal experiences and tragedies related to Black lives lost to intolerance and violence while linking them with Taylor’s death and this community’s experiences. What experiencing that art means going forward is not entirely clear.

On a personal level, these Arts Bureau Edge journalists see how arts can evoke personal reflection on and connection to the others' experiences. This exhibit showed them new ways to see and ask questions. They talked about their desire to see more art that speaks to urgent issues and larger ones, such as this country’s oaths referenced in “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.

• Murray: Subjects like these are important to be featured in museums to help convey the perspective and experiences of people. Art provides a visual of a person’s experience that others may understand visually rather than through text or aural narration.

• Vanover: The further involvement of museums and the arts would be an amazing way to stand up for what we believe in as a country. This exhibit really made me enjoy the power visual arts has to make you feel and relate to art work.

But some things, as Gibson suggests, can be beyond the reach of art, including achieving accountability.

• “I say Black people shouldn’t have to be martyrs especially ones who never intended on being so. Her death was something created out of an apathetic government, a government that will always be apathetic as long as it exists."

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