For over a month, protesters have gathered together in city centers across the globe to protest not only the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, but also police brutality towards people of color. The protests have not only served to highlight ongoing, violent injustices within our legal system and police force, but have also sparked a wide range of politically motivated artwork in the form of fashion, music, street murals, poetry, and yard art. This type of artwork, often referred to as activist art, is intended to not only move the viewer, but to also speak action.
According to a 2016 Artspace article by Loney Abrams titled, “How to Make EFFECTIVE Political Art: 6 Rules of Thumb,” activist art “seeks not only to offer commentary, but to initiate real social or political change.” Activist art has a long and rich history here in the land of the free. Some of the most recent, widely known activist art has come from renowned artist, Shepard Fairey. After appropriating a press photo shot of former President Barack Obama, Fairey’s red, white and blue image sparked people across America to get more involved in Obama’s political campaign. If we travel even further back into our country’s history, we will find the incredibly powerful works by artists such as Banksy, Guerrilla Girls, and Keith Haring. Whether addressing gay rights, civil rights, women’s equality, environmentalism, or corruption within the art world itself, protest art can inspire and mobilize communities in ways that create actual, effective change.
Mobilizing Through the Arts
Here in Rowan County, the first round of protest art to make its 2020 appearance was a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists across the county were looking for ways to show their gratitude and support to first responders. Many others aimed to encourage citizens to stay at home, social distance, and use face masks. With protests erupting across the county organized by groups including Black Lives Matter, Women for Community Justice, the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP, and Rowan Concerned Citizens, artists began turning their attention to an issue that has been boiling just under the surface of our democracy for far too long. With cities all around us paving the way, artists here have been deeply inspired by the massive Black Lives Matter murals. Winston-Salem, Charlotte, and Greensboro have all worked together with local artists of color to create protest murals that can not only be viewed from street level, but are appearing on satellites around the globe responsible for producing the imagery for location and mapping software such as Google maps. While this type of street mural has not been approved here in Rowan, artists here in our small corner of the world are doing what they can with what they have.
Local artist Yeddi Lino has attended many of the protests in the Downtown Salisbury area and has been inspired to create a variety of works in response. From photographing the actual protests, the protest signs and artwork, to printing custom BLM apparel, Lino has paved the way for artistic inspiration. His photojournalistic style showcases the events of the protests and elicits an emotional response in the viewer.
“I decided to make the shirts,” Lino said, “because it allows us to put our input into the narrative for change. Life is never over and our legacies are at stake!” He went on to share that, “(the black community) might not be heard…but will always be seen. Wearing the change reminds me of the mindset to keep.” When asked about the emotional impact of this work, Lino said, “filming my people being tear gassed and battled for standing up for what’s right only makes me go harder.”
Lino’s creative drive didn’t stop there. In addition to his multitude of photos, he is always working on video footage of these recent protests and a complete line of Black Lives Matter custom t-shirts. Most notable are the “Papi Portraits” and the “Black Dads Exist” shirts designed to break the stigma surrounding black fathers and to highlight the strong bonds that exist amongst families of color in our communities.
Destiny Deberry Stone
Others, such as local musician and music educator, Destiny Deberry Stone of Destiny Stone Music, is using her craft to inspire young children of color through positive reinforcement. A Mississippi native, Stone came to North Carolina for college. Here her music has grown from the light and airy love songs of a young girl, to more challenging topics including issues of systemic racism. Stone’s current project, The Music House Inc., was founded in 2019. With a mission “to provide music education, resources, and live music events for our community,” this nonprofit organization has “been able to give piano lessons to students young and old, while also creating first-time recording and performance opportunities for local musicians.”
When asked why this mission is so important to her, Stone shared, “It’s important to me because I believe positive representation matters. Out of all my years of school and college, I only had one music teacher who looked like me and I’ll never forget her. I think it’s important for black children to see themselves doing things that they may have otherwise not seen. There are so many stereotypes pertaining to black people, and I want to aid in defying the status quo when it comes to black people, black children, and music.” To support The Music House Inc. please follow them on Facebook.
Be the Change
Other organizations are mobilizing change through art in their own unique ways. Local grassroots organization Happy Roots has been improving the lives of our citizens for years through their community gardens. Now, they are implementing bright and colorful artworks featuring inspirational quotes through garden stone. Local artist, Ivy Burleson, created these bold works to place in and around garden beds throughout Rowan County. Happy Roots is currently seeking community volunteers interested in creating more works of art for their various spaces.
Art has served as an agent for political change, historical documentation, and education for centuries. It allows us the opportunity to ponder, to reflect and to consider other points of view. It gives a voice to the voiceless, the marginalized and the ostracized. While Rowan County may not have a giant mural in the center of town (yet), artists here shouldn’t be counted out. If you take a look around, open your eyes and ears, and embrace the world around, you might find that there are voices all around working to create change in beautiful and amazing ways.