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‘My emotions were so raw’: The people creating art to remember George Floyd

Written by Ananda Pellerin, CNN

This feature includes artwork with language that some might find offensive.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, artists have been quick to respond with works that seek to memorialize, to provoke and to heal.
Los Angeles-based artist and activist Nikkolas Smith is using his work to convey the message that police violence is a reality for many African Americans.

“This latest case of police brutality was yet another injustice that moved me to paint a tribute to give honor and a voice to a voiceless victim,” said the 35-year-old over email.

A portrait of George Floyd by Nikkolas Smith

A portrait of George Floyd by Nikkolas Smith Credit: Nikkolas Smith

Smith’s digital portrait of Floyd wearing a suit was shared by organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement and Michelle Obama on Instagram. Obama wrote: “Like so many of you, I’m pained by these recent tragedies … Right now it’s George, Breonna, and Ahmaud. Before that it was Eric, Sandra, and Michael. It just goes on, and on, and on.”

‘I can breathe now’

Closer to home in Minneapolis, Greta McLain, Xena Goldman and Cadex Herrera sprung into action to paint a wall mural at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South, the spot where Floyd was arrested. A viral video showed Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times as police officer Derek Chauvin — who has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — knelt on his neck.

For the artists, creativity is a powerful way for the community to speak out.

“George Floyd was killed in my neighborhood, where I have lived all of my life. It is a clear and unequivocal action of police brutality,” said community and public artist McLain over email.

The artists began painting the mural last Thursday, three days after Floyd died, and were finished within 12 hours. It shows a likeness of Floyd with his name in prominent lettering and a flaming sunflower behind him. It also features the names of other African Americans who have been killed by the police, including 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in March, in her Louisville home. Her death has also been protested in the last few days.
Thirty-five-year-old McLain studied mural making at the University of California, Davis, and was mentored by Malaquias Montoya, a major figure in the Chicano art movement. She now owns the community mural studio GoodSpace Murals, and calls her hometown of Minneapolis a “hub for community art.”
The mural was painted on the wall of Cup Foods with the blessing of the shop’s owner, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh. (One of Abumayyaleh’s employees made the initial call that led to officers arriving on the scene to confront Floyd.)

McLain was approached by Goldman to join the project. “This was our first time all painting together,” she said of her co-artists, who had met the previous year at a training session for Latinx muralists. Though the process for such pieces is usually much longer, thley were looking for a “permanent shift” in the intersection’s “visual landscape.”

“It was very fast, organized over Instagram…like, ‘who’s ready, let’s go!'” McLain said. “My studio was able to provide the paint and we were able to move quickly.”

This was the first mural that 45-year-old Belize-born Cadex Herrera had completed, after he had started as a mural apprentice with a local non-profit last year. As an art educator and intervention specialist at an elementary school, he felt compelled to create something meaningful after hearing about Floyd’s death.

The artists stand in front of the George Floyd memorial mural that they painted in Minneapolis. From left to right: Niko Alexander, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, Pablo Helm Hernandez.

The artists stand in front of the George Floyd memorial mural that they painted in Minneapolis. From left to right: Niko Alexander, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, Pablo Helm Hernandez. Credit: courtesy Cadex Herrera

“My emotions were so raw,” he said over email. “The hurt is so deep and the wound won’t heal because it opens up every time a person of color is killed unjustly and it doesn’t stop.”

For him, art can help heal. “Art is therapy. Art can say things you cannot express with words. It brings the community together to reflect, to grieve, for strength and for support.”

He, McLain and Goldman were helped by artists Maria Javier, Rachel Breen, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Helmp Hernandez, however the final detail on the mural, the words ‘I can breathe now,’ were added by someone else, and reference the words repeated by Floyd in the video of the killing: “I can’t breathe.”

“The phrase came from an African American community member, Anjel Carpenter, who approached us and asked for it,” McLain said. “She then surveyed the community, asking them if they preferred ‘I can breathe now,’ ‘Let me breathe,’ and one more, and they voted for ‘I can breathe now.’ We asked another member of the community to paint those words in.”

“(Carpenter) expressed to us that the idea of not being able to breathe was fueling so much tension and anger,” McLain continued. “And that now George was with God and it was important for our community healing to claim our breath and ability to breathe.”

Justice for George

Thirty-three-year-old Shirien Damra says she is relatively new to Instagram, but her memorial image dedicated to George Floyd, “Justice for George,” has already received over three million likes since she posted it the day after Floyd was killed. Her work has been widely shared, including by congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

A native of Chicago, Damra is the daughter of Palestinian refugees and wants her work, which brings together bold and soft colors, to resonate as “loving” and “calming, yet hopeful.”

“I know the power of color and the emotion it can implicitly evoke,” she said over email. “I hope that my colors and imagery help the viewers process difficult emotions and events and come out of it with some hope and inspiration.”

"Justice for Breonna" by Shirien Damra

“Justice for Breonna” by Shirien Damra Credit: Courtesy Shirien Damra

"Justice for Ahmaud" by Shirien Damra

“Justice for Ahmaud” by Shirien Damra Credit: Courtesy Shirien Damra

Damra works as a freelance designer for social justice organizations and has created similar memorial illustrations, including ones for Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two men in May while jogging near his home in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor.

“I wanted these pieces to be a gesture of solidarity with Black communities in their time of grieving,” she said. “I noticed a lot of people sharing the videos of Ahmaud and George’s deaths, so I wanted to create an alternative. These videos are very traumatic and triggering.”

She also hopes her illustrations will help combat stereotypes. “So often, I’ve seen victims of anti-Black violence demonized as some kind of justification for their deaths, implying that they did something to deserve it,” she said, citing the fatal shooting of high school student Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, as one example.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, dialed 911 to report a “real suspicious guy” who was “up to no good … and he’s just walking around” before following and shooting Martin. He later claimed he was acting in self-defense and was acquitted of murder by a Florida jury.

“He was a 17-year-old kid who was seen as suspicious for wearing a hoodie,” Damra said. “It’s a disturbing pattern that happens each time we hear news of another victim of anti-Black violence. My way of challenging this was to carefully choose bright colors and florals to honor their memory and celebrate their lives in a beautiful way.”

Necessary acts

On Saturday, New York-based Láolú Senbanjo, an artist and former human rights lawyer, posted a photo on Instagram of his watercolor and charcoal painting that depicts Floyd with a target on his chest. The image also features a likeness of Donald Trump, vocalizing the incendiary Tweet he wrote in response to protests and violence in the streets: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
"I can't breathe" by Láolú Senbanjo

“I can’t breathe” by Láolú Senbanjo Credit: Láolú Senbanjo

“When I see video of men like George Floyd treated as far less than human, I can barely comprehend it,” 39-year-old Senbanjo said over email. “His proud face smashed into the pavement. It breaks my heart apart. I’ve been black all my life, but for the first twenty years I was black in Africa (Nigeria). Now I’ve been black in America and it is a different experience. America doesn’t honor what they have in their black citizens. I couldn’t not make art about the killing of George Floyd.”

Senbanjo said that art can help with processing trauma: “Every time there is a new senseless death, or blatant manifestation of harmful white supremacy, art can help us to instigate, remember, imagine, discuss, and express these complex experiences and feeling states.”

Do the right thing

Theoplis Smith III was born and raised in St Louis, Missouri, and his recent artwork of Floyd presents him wearing the “Love” and “Hate” four-knuckle rings worn by Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn) in Spike Lee’s 1989 movie, “Do The Right Thing.” In the movie, the unarmed Raheem is choked to death by a police officer.

“Seeing this movie as a child, I never imagined that what happened to Radio Raheem the character in the movie, I would not only see on an eight-minute video happening to a man before my eyes, but have to sit and discuss with my 16-year-old black son,” the 38-year-old former banker said over email, referring to Chauvin’s use of a knee-to-neck restraint maneuver on Floyd, which allegedly led to his death. Smith’s post of his artwork was shared by Spike Lee’s own Instagram account.

Memorial artwork by Theoplis Smith III, depicting George Floyd as Radio Raheem, from Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing." The character is choked to death in the film

Memorial artwork by Theoplis Smith III, depicting George Floyd as Radio Raheem, from Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” The character is choked to death in the film Credit: Courtesy Theoplis Smith III

Smith, who has created other memorial images, such as one for Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson six years ago in Missouri, said that making this type of art can be difficult.

“Unfortunately, having to create out of many negative circumstances isn’t my favorite thing to create, but it is often my most impactful.”

Art for now and the future

When art is used to bring attention to social issues, it can connect with people in ways that other forms of political engagement cannot, Damra in Chicago said.

“Art can touch the emotional core of what moves us toward social justice in ways that a strategy meeting or news or political analysis can’t. Murals, graffiti and paintings are a chance for communities to come together and speak their mind or represent themselves in public space.”

The message, for Damra, is clear: “We don’t want any more Black lives targeted by police and white supremacy.”

As protests erupt all over the US, memorials and demonstrations to Floyd are also appearing around the world, including one by street artist Eme Freethinker (aka Jesus Cruz Artiles), who painted a mural of Floyd’s likeness in Berlin.

McLain wrote that it was crucial for white people to be loud and active about the “decades of police violence and injustice directed at people of color,” adding: “The incredible racism and violence that our communities of color have been experiencing… is NOT ok and we all need to stand and demand change. We cannot be quiet!”

Similarly Herrera in Minnesota wants the mural to remind people of the message that “Black Lives Matter.” He wrote that we must all “stand up for people of color who are singled out, harassed, brutalized, mistreated and murdered by law enforcement every day.”

Smith in Los Angeles said the importance of social justice art is to galvanize people, and to help them look to a better future. “Art during these volatile times in history can either aggressively wake people up to reflect what is broken, or paint a hopeful picture of what could be, showing us a way forward.”

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