Art project aims to start discussion on Black Lives Matter

RICHLAND, La. (AP) — Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag in 2013. Since then, it flowed from a social media statement to the catalyst for social justice protests.

“Black lives should matter, and the conversation should be separate from what people have been using it as a political thing. It’s really about people. The black lives saying was started way before the organization started, and it was just about people saying that my life mattered,” said Vitus Shell, president of the Black Creatives Circle of North Louisiana.

Last weekend, the group unveiled an art project spelling out the phrase that’s designed to start discussions in the Northeast Louisiana about what Black people mean from the individual level to the roles they play in their communities.

K’Shana Hall-Davis, vice president of the Black Creatives Circle, said all the discussion about BLM in northeast Louisiana seemed to still be limited to the hash tag, not tangible work to spur hard discussions in our communities.

Vitus Shell, K’Shana Hall-Davis and Brooke Foy talked at the unveiling for the Black Creatives Circle of North Louisiana’s moveable Black Lives Matter art piece in Richwood.

Brooke Foy, Rodrecas “Drék” Davis, Shell and Hall-Davis started with the street mural idea but shifted to this concept quickly when they saw it wouldn’t happen.

Shell said they wanted to paint the street in an area of downtown Monroe with a lot of history for the Black community, but they realized after the municipal election that there wasn’t enough support from the city or council anymore.

Hall-Davis said they were surprised by how vehemently people reacted against the idea.

Many of the street murals around the nation were vandalized, Hall-Davis said. Being prepared for that is part of the discussion too.

The goal, Davis said, was to create a catalyst for community action and lay the foundation for dialogue around economic inequity, access and the arts.

Particularly, he said, there needs to be more discussion about why the history of Black communities aren’t included when talking about the histories of Ouachita Parish, Monroe and West Monroe and how that reverberates in the communities we live in now.

Davis said he and Foy had threats directed against them, which didn’t factor in the mural not happening but did underscore the need for the project.

“With the pushback that we got, we had to start thinking outside the box and make our own box,” Hall-Davis said. “Sometimes when you don’t have that support that you thought you were going to have, you have to figure out another way to do it, and we did.”

She’s hopeful this format will let the piece go more places and be seen by more people.

So they put out a call for Black artists and put them in a position of leadership for this travelling piece, which Shell said could be their first chance to lead.

They cut out 6-foot-tall letters and had groups of people paint them at a recent workday. Each letter was directed by a Black artists, and students from ULM, Louisiana Tech University and Grambling State University worked on three of the letters.

The artists, who came from Grambling to Lake Providence, painted designs that drew inspiration from a variety of sources. Topics ranged from loving natural hair, appreciating Black women and girls, honoring the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Black trans people who were been murdered and addressing white people who stay silent about racial injustice.

Shell said it was important to unveil it in Richwood, a town created by Black people that is still majority Black, and he said people in the area often don’t appreciate the town, which shows through neglect. He pointed to athletes and academics that started in Richwood and went on to success.

Mayor Gerald Brown said it’s an honor to partner and collaborate on a project that he thinks can start a dialogue and make real, positive change.

“With us doing this project, this is a part of what Black Lives Matter means. It means we should really start appreciating the things that we have that are close to us and that actually have helped to build this area,” Shell said.

He pointed to Foy, a white artist, as someone who used their privilege to be an ally and help others without being the messiah and fixing everything. He said it was a reminder that we all need to team build and use whatever assets and privilege we have to work collaboratively with others for their benefit.

Foy said she loves the idea that she’s someone that others can trust to fight on their behalf. She’s thankful for all the people who worked on the project and supported them to launch this and help it grow to educate and empower others.

Ideally, Foy said, the piece will go to different places and organizations, including local universities. The plan is to develop workshops and panels to be held in conjunction with the installation.

But starting the conversation is important so Black people feel included and important, Shell said.

As a Black artist, he’s often not approached at events. He said increasing visibility at every level is needed, he said it’s essential to create spaces for Black creators to feel comfortable and have agency. He wanted to use his success to help empower others.

The group had regular group meetings before the COVID-19 pandemic to meet and bounce ideas off each other or just talk about the struggle to create, Hall-Davis said. They’ve moved to Zoom meetings but hope to start having socially distanced meetings again soon because face-to-face discussion is important.

The group helps create a core repository of knowledge and support for each other, she said.

The circle includes more than visual artists, Shell said.

Poets, musicians, seamstresses, podcasters, photographers and writers are part of the group.

And the people who support them are important too, Hall-Davis said. “You don’t have to be Black to support.”