How Local Art For Justice Gained The Attention of the Smithsonian

It all started with recurring nightmares, De Nichols says of the conception of the Mirror Casket.

Days after Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, Nichols couldn’t shake the vivid image in her dreams of a man carrying a casket made completely out of mirrors. As she grappled with the trauma of Michael Brown’s death and the protests that followed, Nichols, a local artist and designer, wanted to put her activism to work through art and community. She emailed close friends to see how she could turn her nightmare into a vision of remembrance and a critique on justice.

From that email, six people replied – Marcis Curtis, Sophie Lipman, Damon Davis, Mallory Nazam, Derek Laney and Elizabeth Vega – cementing what would become the team behind the The Mirror Casket Project. Most recently the casket — a literal coffin stunningly covered in mirrors, meant to engage viewers in whole and shattered self reflection — has found a home at the Smithsonian’s newest museum in Washington D.C., the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

“Being asked to be a part of the collection was a big deal for a lot of us,” Nichols says. “But also with this being the first black Smithsonian – I mean there’s an African Art Museum – but that this was such a historic moment for our nation and that we were apart of this historic movement for our nation, to bridge that was important.”

The Mirror Casket is both a sculpture and performative piece. When in motion, it is often used to imitate a funeral procession. It includes “very critical design choices along the way that informed the final piece,” says Marcis Curtis, who built the piece and is the co-founder of Citizen Carpentry. For example, there are oak handrails that offer both an air of elegance and also an element of functionality for the pallbearers to carry it comfortably. The most crucial, of course, are the mirrors. There is one big shattered surface and single planes on the sides that are unbroken. “So as we carried it at head-level or shoulder-level, everybody at that height would be able to see themselves unbroken,” Curtis says. “Then when we presented it in confrontation that it would be shattered and hopefully we could direct both messages: one of solidarity and one of brokenness.”

The Mirror Casket was activated during Ferguson October, a schedule of events organized by Nichols and other community members in 2014. Although she was sick on the day it was presented, other team members led a silent funeral procession to the Ferguson Police Department, positioning it only inches away from the line that divided protesters and officers. Curtis says that while most officers refused to engage with the piece, there were some who looked at themselves in the mirror. Laney, another organizer, later began to encourage the crowd to look at themselves. After that, the casket was included in one more march between Kiener Plaza and the police headquarters in Downtown St. Louis. Later it was included in a convening hosted by Amnesty International before being included in the traveling exhibition “A Moment of Silence” and later the exhibition “With, Not For” by the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission. The casket eventually gained some wear and tear, causing the team to consider how it should live on.

“At some point, it transitioned from just being that functional piece to being this work of art. It started getting dinged up because it was used in so many marches,” Nichols says. “There was a lot of emotional connection and trauma with having it, but we also wanted it to be preserved, which is really funny because in a very early conversation we thought about using it and then smashing it and letting people take pieces of the mirror.”

During the casket’s travels, Nichols was contacted by Kevin Strait, a historian and museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Strait was interested in the group donating the piece, but turning over the casket to the Smithsonian wasn’t an easy decision.

“We weren’t done with it,” Curtis says. “We had a lot of misgivings about relinquishing it to a large institution for it to be taken out of play.”

After many meetings and negotiations, the museum agreed to purchase the Mirror Casket in March. The team has placed the money in a trust for now to continue their work in activism and the arts in the future.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on September 24, drawing thousands of people to the National Mall for a moment that was long overdue. Celebrities, politicians, artists and more commemorated the day with speeches, music and dance, as people filed into the museum made up of five floors beginning with the history of slavery and freedom and concluding with the rich culture that has informed not only the lives of African Americans, but also the entire nation. Of the 36,000 artifacts collected by the museum, the Mirror Casket is one of them.

 

Nichols, Nezam and Curtis traveled to Washington D.C. for the opening. While there, they spoke at an event at Georgetown University in collaboration with the university’s Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service. They also attended a vigil for black lives hosted by Georgetown’s Black Student Alliance. Only after those events did they visit the museum. Although they weren’t able to make it through the entire museum, the group found that just being in the space as well as in D.C. was a testament to the monumental work that they had already accomplished and a reminder that there is much more left to do.

“I think it just brought a lot together for me,” Nichols says. “This is real and this is the why. This is why this type of work and this type of creative activism matters.”

Nichols often uses the word “artivist” – artist centering activism in their respective and collective works. It’s a powerful compilation, as it not only pushes people to create informative work but also ensures that as artists they are holding themselves accountable, their communities, and those who engage with their work. Which is what makes the team of seven all the more impactful. Prior to the Mirror Casket, they had worked together on several projects such as FoodSpark, Art Builds and more, engaging the St. Louis community in critical conversations and thought through their passion for art and activism.

“It definitely became this layering of the emotional side of things because we couldn’t break free,” Nichols says. “It was like ‘We’ve got to keep creating.’ There was just so much to do. In some ways, those moments of creating together became self-care and us loving each other and taking care of each other.”

The Mirror Casket is not yet on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but the team has some ideas of how they might want it to be presented. Curtis thinks that it would be ideal if, on the opening night of the exhibition that includes the piece, the seven are invited to create a funeral procession, much like they did during the marches, and to present the piece in the location that it will be displayed in at the museum. For now, however, the Mirror Casket will be used for programmatic purposes.

The Mirror Casket also will live on beyond the museum’s walls. Already, activist Angela Davis has penned an essay on the casket in “Smithsonian” magazine and local activist Jamala Rogers mentions it in her newest book.

“It lives on through what’s next,” De says. “With each step forward, we’re able to do this work.”

Images courtesy of Mirrorcasket.com.

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