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.