projects+gallery Opens New Exhibition Bridging Art and Activism
Driving down I-70 East in St. Charles, Missouri, commuters are met with a sign with a black backdrop and white capitalized letters that reads: ALL LI_ES MATTER. The absence of the “V” is not by accident, and its location is no coincidence.
Designed by Hank Willis Thomas, the sign references the phrase “All lives matter,” which has worked to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement that was founded in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. The movement gained more traction in 2014 when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and St. Louis became an epicenter for protests against protest brutality.
All Lives Matter has been taken up by people who have unsuccessfully attempted to assert a movement that is all-encompassing, regardless of race. However, Thomas, whose ALL LI_ES MATTER slogan first appeared as a part of a public art project commemorating the 50th anniversary of New York magazine earlier this year, told the publication, “It’s so obvious that many people are lying when they say ‘All lives matter.’ If you believe all lives matter, then you’d also acknowledge that Black lives matter, and those same people would be marching alongside if they believed that.”
Thomas’ provoking billboard is one of three that have been mounted around the St. Louis-area. Another one by artist Derrick Adams is located on I-70 West near Cass Avenue, and a third, by artist Michele Pred, is near I-44 west between Kingshighway and Hampton. The billboards—organized by projects+gallery founder Susan Barrett and curator Modou Dieng—were erected in September, two months ahead of the midterm elections. They are a part of the non-partisan 50 States Initiative created by For Freedoms, a national platform that produces exhibitions, installations, public programs and billboard campaigns to advocate for inclusive civic participation.
The 50 States Initiative has been noted as the largest public art campaign in U.S. history. In addition to the billboards, Barrett and Dieng have also partnered with For Freedoms to open the exhibition Cry of Victory, Short Walks to Freedom on Oct. 18 at projects+gallery.
The exhibition features 14 artists including Thomas, Adams and Pred, along with others such as Kwame Brathwaite, Xaviera Simmons and local artists Shabez Jamal and Jen Everett. “What brought these artists together for this exhibition is the vernacular they use to reflect on society and community consciousness as a whole,” Dieng writes in his curator statement. “Their ability to lay the path that brings us closer to that celebratory achievement.”
Another part of the “Cry of Victory, Short Walks to Freedom” exhibition opened on Oct. 11 at the Gallery at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Oscar Murillo’s installation “Over You / You” includes more than 150 placards and evokes a sense of a protest in limbo within the gallery.
The artists featured in the exhibitions grapple with race, gender and sexuality, place and more—all conversations that underscore a great deal of present-day political conversations and express urgency for the upcoming elections. Art is a place for one to take a stand, to both abstractly and concretely think through difference, and also reimagine a society that is safe, accessible, equal and fair. It is a place where one can find a way to redefine what freedom means.
In addition to the exhibition, projects+gallery is collaborating with several local arts and cultural institutions such as the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), Center of Creative Arts (COCA), the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation to organize public workshops where visitors are encouraged to complete yard signs and posters designed with the phrases “Freedom of ___,” “Freedom to ___,” “Freedom from ___,” “Freedom for ___.”
“We’re trying to showcase how art is a verb,” Barrett says. “It’s not something that just should be an object. It’s an action. Art is not necessarily relegated to a gallery or to a museum or to any institution, but it lives amongst us and it should be part of our everyday life. It’s through these signs that we’re giving permission to say, ‘Look this is an art project, so go ahead do what you need to do, say what you need to say,’ and I think that people just need permission sometimes to do that.”
Similarly, Dieng notes in his curator statement that through the exhibition he has “endeavored to introduce a conversational platform between the art we make and the freedom we seek. … Because, after all, the act of doing and making is an act of this freedom.”
The yard signs and posters reference Norman Rockwell’s paintings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear—which is what inspired Thomas and Gottesman to found For Freedoms in 2016. In short, the organization’s mission is to “use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues and core values.”
To further this mission, Thomas will travel to St. Louis for a town hall meeting on Thursday, Nov. 1, at CAM. He will be in conversation about freedom of speech with St. Louis’ Missouri House Representative Bruce Franks Jr., Washington University’s Assistant Vice Chancellor for the Academy for Diversity and Inclusion Nicole Hudson, reporter for St. Louis public radio Rachel Lippman and musician and activist Tef Poe.
Cry of Victory, Short Walks to Freedom will run at projects + gallery from Oct. 18 to Nov. 24, with an artist talk on Oct. 20. The “Over You / You” installation is at The Gallery and the Kranzberg Arts Center through Nov. 10. “For Freedoms” events continue across the United States until December, and the billboard displays will remain up until mid-November.
Images courtesy of projects + gallery unless otherwise noted.