“Hands up, don’t shoot!” Cutting through a remix of blaring car horns and rhythmic beat of drums, a choir of voices chants call-and-response style from the speakers at the SoLA Contemporary gallery in Los Angeles. The protesters’ calls for justice are punctuated by the powerful messages of the Black Lives Matter signs floating overhead — some elaborate and some profoundly simple.
This exhibit, designed to create an immersive experience for gallery visitors so they feel like they are at a protest as it unfolds, is one example of how galleries and museums are trying to capture a moment in time — the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. As they have through the decades, protesters today embrace art as a form of political expression, using iconic imagery and phrases to inspire change. By collecting protest art and the stories behind them, these institutions are recording and preserving history, unfiltered. The resulting collections are contributing to the legacy of storytelling that is a key element in Black culture and heritage, ensuring future generations will always remember.
The “Protest in Place” installation at SoLA Contemporary — a South Los Angeles gallery located in one of the country’s largest middle-class, Black neighborhoods and mere miles from the 1992 Rodney King uprisings — includes about 60 signs and posters. Some are in pristine condition, while others are bent or ripped from use. One reads “Justice for George” in shimmering black and white cutout letters, with May 25, 2020, the date of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, accented in mint green. Nearby, “No Justice, No Peace” is scrawled across white posterboard with barbed wire sketched along its border, while a brown cardboard sign states “All Black Lives Matter” in black and red marker. On another, a hand-painted portrait depicts a silver-haloed Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police in her Louisville home. Her name is prominently displayed, a nod to “say her name,” a refrain within the movement to be inclusive of Black women killed by police. All were made by hand and submitted by both artists and everyday people-turned-protesters who have marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past several months.
“In this time of crisis, art has become the language of protesters,” says Peggy Sivert, co-director of the gallery.
Expressions of outrage and hope
The Black Lives Matter movement, possibly the largest protest movement in US history, has galvanized millions to take to the streets, and the signs they carry serve as both art and artifacts of what feels like a pivotal time. These sights and sounds have become familiar in communities across the country and the world, after months of protests against police brutality — and for racial justice. Preserving these signs has become especially poignant in the weeks since the death of former U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis, who survived violence at the hands of police at the landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama.
Sivert and co-director Tatum Hawkins culled signs from protests across Los Angeles and are displaying them with audio recordings from a Black Lives Matter-led protest in Los Angeles on June 7. The multisensory experience strikes an emotional chord with visitors, including the people whose work is on display. Hawkins recalls the reaction of one local artist who visited the gallery and saw her own work — including the painting of Taylor — alongside signs calling for reparations, an end to white silence, and defunding the police. “She saw one of her posters paired with this other one, heard the sounds, and started to cry,” says Hawkins. “It was like she was experiencing the protest all over again in a brand new way.”