These artists are creating powerful portraits of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor: 'Art is a tool for me to raise my voice'
The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have sparked worldwide protests and passionate demands for meaningful change. They’ve also driven artists around the globe — many of them people of color — to fuel their heartbreak, anger and pain into compelling works that honor and empower those black lives taken too soon. It’s a form of protest, a sign of respect and a powerful counterpoint to the graphic footage that, in the case of Floyd and Arbery, have shown them terrorized, not treasured.
As these works spread far and wide across social media, help amplify calls for justice and equality and usher in a wave of new followers seeking to support artists of color, three people behind some of the movement’s most recognizable images speak out about their creative contributions.
Temi Coker, a photographer and graphic designer who runs the Dallas-based multidisciplinary creative studio Coker Studio with his wife, Afritina, has long used his colorful, collage-style work to “uplift my African-American brothers and sisters” and embody “the fact that Black Lives Matter,” he tells Yahoo Life. But things took on a new personal complexity with the death of George Floyd — someone Coker knew from the Houston church he attended while in college.
“George was the one who would invite people to come to [a Resurrection Houston church event involving the city’s Third Ward community],” says Coker. “He was THE BRIDGE. He wanted to bring change to his community, and everyone who knew Floyd knew that and respected him for that. He took this same mindset to his death. He loved God and loved people. I wish I had gotten to know him more, but seeing him have passion to bring change to his community and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ told me all I needed to know about him. He was a gift to the community, one of a kind.”
Coker felt compelled to honor Floyd through his art, which helped him process his own sense of loss.
“This piece was made a day after hearing the news,” he notes. “I didn’t know how to grieve at the moment, so I went to what I knew best: art. It allowed me to say the things I didn’t have the words to say. It was healing for me and allowed me to picture 'Big Floyd' in a better light. He was vibrant, he was bold, he was courageous. I took the qualities I remember of him and put it into art.”
Coker has since turned his attention to Breonna Taylor, marking what would have been the late EMT worker’s 27th birthday with a powerful piece featuring her portrait alongside bold streaks of yellow, purple and orange. Both that piece and the Floyd tribute have been shared widely online, and while Coker says his creative mission hasn’t changed, he hopes the response to it does.
“I hope people see that black is beautiful, black is strong and that God didn’t make a mistake making us,” he says. “Like Nina Simone said: ‘An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.’ Black lives have and will always matter, and I feel it’s my duty to reflect that.”
Canadian artist Simone Saunders’s latest tufted textile pieces couldn’t be more timely. Over the spring, while self-isolating at home, the Calgary-based artist happened upon an interview with an African-American man named Kip Diggs, who told the Washington Post that during the coronavirus pandemic he wore colorful face masks in “pink, lime green, Carolina blue so I don’t look menacing.” Saunders decided to channel her concerns about racial profiling, and the struggle for people of color to feel safe in public spaces during the pandemic, into a thematic collaboration with Chicago-born multidisciplinary artist Tekikki Walker, with both creating their own pieces for the Long Distance Art Series and the Social Distancing Festival.
These pieces — which depict a black man and woman, respectively, with the words “Black Lives Matter” looming large in the background — predate Ahmaud Arbery’s Feb. 23 death, but it was his killing while out jogging, for which two white men are charged with murder, that fueled Saunders to carry on her thematic work.
“I was dismayed to become aware of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I wanted to honor him by creating a textile of his portrait.”
She says creating the piece, which shows Arbery in a tuxedo, his face transformed into a Technicolor patchwork, was “an emotional process.” Hence, she has no plans to sell the work.
“The sensitivity within his death is a painful one, and a delicate one,” she says. “Where it lands is not an immediate decision that I'm ready to reconcile with. So for now it remains in my collection.”
Since the Arbery tribute, she has thrown herself into addressing racial injustice via new hand-tufted pieces, including a Black Lives Matter work featuring Martin Luther King Jr.
“I am driven right now,” she says of using her art to raise awareness. “This is a time for black voices to shine, to rise up and stand firm. Art is a tool for me to raise my voice, to share my experiences and reflect on the injustices. My textiles share narratives from a black heritage and aim to continue the racial emancipation of black people.
And while she herself is not American, Saunders says issues like police brutality and inequality aren’t limited to the United States — nor is the heartbreak and outrage stemming from these recent deaths.
“This brutality happens in Canada as well, and the protests — the movements — are taking place across my nation and are mighty in my city of Calgary,” she says. “I stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters protesting for justice in the U.S. It's horrifying, the trauma and pain that the world is witnessing as to what people are experiencing throughout these protests. I view the protests as necessary, as black lives are necessary. Something needs to change, and now.”
If you’ve spent much time on Instagram lately, you’ve no doubt seen Shirien Damra’s now-viral tributes to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, each one demanding justice for their untimely deaths. In addition to those bright, floral portraits, the Palestinian-American designer and illustrator has shown support for protesters, whom she has depicted in her latest work, “Defend Black Life.” She says the piece is intended to “show my support for the uprising that is happening around the nation right now” and “amplify the calls of black organizers across the nation to defend black life and defund the police.”
Damra’s work has been a “creative outlet and tool for raising awareness and inspiring action,” the former human rights advocate tells Yahoo Life. As a freelancer, she’s committed to working with organizations doing social justice work, including Believers Bail Out, a community-led effort to bail out Muslims in pretrial incarceration and ICE custody, and the environmental justice coalition NY Renews. Though her pieces have given voice to important issues, as well as Muslim representation, from the get-go, the death of Arbery inspired her to take on her first real-person subject and show “an artistic form of solidarity with black communities in their time of grieving.”
“I also wanted to raise awareness of what happened to Ahmaud without sharing the triggering video of his murder,” she adds. “My portrait of Ahmaud was a way to spread awareness of what happened to him while honoring his memory in a dignified way.
“With the video of his murder being shared so widely on social media, I was afraid that people would only remember Ahmaud’s soul being taken away from him, rather than honor his life,” she continues. “I wanted to create something for him as a tribute that shows softness and humanity. There’s always been an effort to demonize black men who are killed, like what happened with the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. I want to break down that stereotype and imagery with my art.”
That portrait and the ones that have followed have struck a chord in part because of their picturesque style — a pop of color to contrast with the bleak news cycle.
“Bright colors and florals are rarely seen when black men are depicted,” Damra explains. “I decided to use a palette that combines bright and bold colors with soft and gentle colors. I hope this combination can give a loving, dreamy, calming yet hopeful feel. 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.”
The significance of the portraits has reached those closest to the people depicted. Damra says she has received word from a follower in Minneapolis that Floyd’s girlfriend was “moved” by his image. She has also been asked by a local NAACP chapter in Georgia to create and donate an image of Arbery for his family.
Recognizing that, while she is a person of color, she herself is not black, Damra says she hopes the exposure she has received in recent weeks will help her “uplift black voices in this moment, which should be amplified more than mine when it comes to anti-black violence.”
In the meantime she will continue to highlight underrepresented groups and issues.
“My art brings together my passion for self-care, healing and social justice to reenvision the world I want to live in,” she says. “The process of creating art is healing, as is the experience of sharing and experiencing it.”
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