Remembering George Floyd Through Minneapolis Public Art
The local push to keep the visual story of George Floyd a Black story
Article By Mecca Bos
Black history is often not documented using Eurocentric methods.
“The Western world keeps things, and controls history with it,” says Lissa Karpeh, a Liberian American artist living in Minneapolis. “But in my cultural background, we control nothing. We don't have recipes, nothing. If we cook something, if we tell you something, it’s in the moment, only.”
Within hours of the grim news that a police officer had killed George Floyd at the intersection of 28th and Chicago in Minneapolis, artists took to the streets, documenting our collective outrage. As buildings burned, and others were boarded, the Twin Cities became a kaleidoscopic patchwork quilt of grief, memorial, and demand for justice.
Art as Rebellion
Hundreds of artworks went up in the streets, on building facades, bus stops, mailboxes, and literally on the streets and sidewalks, especially at the site of George Floyd’s death, in front of Cup Foods at 38th and Chicago.
Much of the art took form on the plywood boards that business owners preemptively placed to protect their windows from potential damage during the several days of protests that took place in our neighborhoods and business corridors. The art, some of it commissioned, some of it spontaneous, seemed to convey a common message: “We stand together in this outrage.”
Karepeh is typically a studio painter, and says, “I’m a big fan of minding my own business.” But in the week after the killing, she could no longer stay within the familiar confines of her studio.
“I felt like I was suffocating,” she recalls. “The world was unfolding outside.”
Additionally, her emotions were getting the better of her.
“I became very toxic. I became very angry.”
She needed to take her art to the streets.
She found a blank facade on an Uptown building, and started to paint. She says a staff member from the business came out and asked if she had a plan for the artwork. Karpeh told her that she was considering a portrait of George Floyd and his daughter. The staff allowed her to continue to paint.
But that moment was an anomalous one—Karpeh found out that many of the artworks she had seen in the neighborhood were commissioned—and what’s more, many of the artists commissioned were white. Karpeh’s was a moment of rebellion, and to this day she doesn’t know what happened to that piece of art, and she says she doesn’t care all that much.
“I just needed to put it out there. Art is about recording the times. Putting it out there is more important than keeping it.”
She later took a youth arts group collective, Free in Color Arts, to create a series of murals on an Uptown building facade, which is still standing and can be seen at 1010 West Lake Street. She said it was imperative that the youth also take place in the public documentation of the outrage, as many of the collective are immigrant youth, “and immigrant communities know that human rights are not up for negotiation.”
Black Preservation Efforts
But a variety of entities and individuals around the Twin Cities are interested in keeping the art as a crucial piece of local and international history. A smaller number are invested in ensuring that the story as expressed through art remain in the Black community—an essential narrative of the Black grief that the community suffered this summer.
Leesa Kelly, a Minneapolis based lifestyle blogger who has been personally gathering art and storing it in her garage until it can be donated, said that what happened to George Floyd on Memorial Day is a Black story, and it is imperative that the story remain in Black hands.
“So often Black history gets whitewashed,” she said by way of explaining why she has already gathered around 100 pieces. “But this is a raw and honest representation of what we went through the week George Floyd was murdered.”
Kelly and another young Black woman, Kenda Zellner-Smith, have been working in a grassroots effort to gather as many plywood boards as possible until a plan can coalesce about what to do with them next. In many cases the boards are massive, so storage and next steps pose logistical conundrums, not least of which the fact that the art was never designed to live indoors.
Kelly contacted the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, which is currently curating an exhibition documenting the uprising sparked by the killing of George Floyd, and in addition to portrait galleries, spoken word, dance, and art in other media, a plywood artwork by DeSean Hollie will be on exhibit. The museum also organized a Black Lives Matter mural on Plymouth Avenue by 16 local artists, including Sean Garrison, an abstract painter.
“If an artist is brave enough to take that title, we accept the duty and obligations to speak on something that’s bigger than us,” said Garrison. “You have to do something that can help move humanity even an inch forward.”
Art as Grief
That mural was designed to be temporary, and will wash away with time and the elements. The temporal nature of the overall body of this work is an inherent part of its meaning and critical to recognize, says Jeanelle Austin, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood where George Floyd’s life is being memorialized through spontaneous public mourning at 38th and Chicago. Austin is a community-appointed caretaker for the area, and contends that the art needs to remain where it is placed, for as long as possible.
“Everything—the rocks, the plants, everything here has bore witness, and continues to bear witness to the grief. That’s why everything here is sacred,” says Austin. “Whether it’s a three-year-old scribbling on a piece of paper or a master street artist. . . we allow things to live their purpose before we try to conserve it.”
And that purpose, says Austin, is an act of protest and grief against anti-Blackness. “And protest disrupts business as usual.” According to her, most of the artists she has spoken with are not interested in credit or even conservation, because the art was given to the community.
That said, Austin and other community caretakers are working on a conservation effort only when items get thrown away, and says that they have gone dumpster diving to retrieve art and offerings from that fate. “But we allow things to live out in protest for as long as possible.”
Hollie, the artist whose plywood board mural is on exhibition at the museum, says that his initial contribution of street art felt like part of the peaceful protest movement that he wanted to see override looting and burning. He had been doing community cleanup in the aftermath of the uprising, and the murals he contributed to on a number of building facades felt like an extension of that cleanup effort.
Bertram Cambridge is another muralist who painted on a friend’s business facade, Studio 23 sneaker shop in Uptown, which had been looted twice. Cambridge was born and raised in Queens, New York, with the melting pot of the golden age of hip hop and graffiti art running through his blood. His portrait of George Floyd as a street-facing gift to the community “is so people don’t forget,” he says.
“Art helps to put the face with the name, so you don’t forget that this is a human. Our brother. This is for public consumption.”
Austin and other community members who are acting as stewards of George Floyd Square, the current ad hoc name of the intersection surrounding the site of the killing, are working with the Midwest Art Conservation Center as well as the family of George Floyd on plans for what should happen next with the art.
But the more pertinent to history, she says, is that “everything is someone’s offering, and therefore nothing gets thrown away.” She adds, notably, that there is no plan to work with white museums in conserving the art from the memorial area.
Art as Reckoning
Tina Burnside is co-founder and co-curator of the African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, and hopes the art will ultimately reside, publicly, in the communities that are fighting systemic racism, and the communities most affected by the uprising.
The George Floyd exhibition at the museum is simultaneously on display alongside another exhibition, “A Reckoning: 100 Years after the Lynchings in Duluth,” marking the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie in 1920. The dual exhibitions put the current events in context to show that the uprising in Minnesota did not happen in a vacuum, but is the result of unaddressed racial inequality.
“Minnesota has this progressive image, one of the top places to live, parks, lakes, Fortune 500 companies, but that’s only for white people,” says Burnside. “Because these other lists come out and it’s one of the worst places for Black people. We need to quit ignoring that,” she says.
How to View the Art
The best way to see public art is in the street. Visit George Floyd Memorial Square at 38th and Chicago, or other Twin Cities communities including the East Lake Street and University Avenue corridors, the communities most affected by the uprisings.
The dual exhibitions mentioned in this article are now on display at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum for an indefinite period.
Support the organizations and artists mentioned in this article:
- Save The Boards To Memorialize The Movement (Leesa Kelly and Kenda Zellner-Smith’s grassroots effort)
About the Author
Mecca Bos is a longtime Twin Cities based food writer and professional chef. Her work can be found locally and nationally and on her Patreon page, patreon.com/meccabos. She specializes in stories about women, people of color, and especially Black people working in the food industry. She loves a cheap wine paired with a good taco.