Black Lives Matter: Public and Protest Art of the Movement

Liz Catalano
Published on

Artist Adrian Brandon began his Stolen series in early 2019 following the death of 26-year-old Jemel Roberson. Grieving his death, Brandon looked for a way to honor Roberson’s life while recognizing his lost future. Brandon began creating a series of portraits of Black victims of police violence, coloring in their portraits for one minute for each year they lived. The pictures are left incomplete, some finishing with only small patches of color. 

“Each time I start coloring a new piece there’s a sense of panic. I want so badly to color in as much as I can… to finish this eye, to get to the lips. When the timer goes off there’s anger, deep sadness, and a sense of hopelessness,” Brandon said in an interview with My Modern Art

The Black Lives Matter movement continues as protestors and activists call for long-term social change and racial justice. Artists such as Brandon have been prompted to pick up old projects and participate in activism. Platforms such as Instagram and Twitter connect these artists to their communities and make works more accessible.

Adrian Brandon, George Floyd. 46 years old, 46 minutes of color. 2020. Image from My Modern Met.
Adrian Brandon, George Floyd. 46 years old, 46 minutes of color. 2020. Image from My Modern Met.

Much of the art related to the movement has been made or exhibited publicly. A group of 80 artists organized a sky art exhibition over the Independence Day weekend on July 4th, 2020. Across the United States, sky-typed messages appeared above prisons, detention facilities, and immigration courts. In Plain Sight, which operates using the hashtag #XMAP, is self-described as “a highly orchestrated mediagenic spectacle and poetic action.” The project’s focus is on immigration and systemic incarceration, standing in solidarity with the movement’s goals.

Several established artists participated in the effort, including Dread Scott (of the United States v. Eichman Supreme Court decision) and fiber artist Sonya Clark. “Imagine “Freedom” as a call, a song, a shout, a demand from the earthbound to the heavens,” says Clark about her message. “Its answer [is] yet to be fulfilled.”

Sonya Clark, Freedom, 2020. Image from In Plain Sight.
Sonya Clark, Freedom, 2020. Image from In Plain Sight.

Activists have also taken to creating art on the ground. Street murals the length of city blocks have appeared in cities across the country, most recently in Lower Manhattan. Prompted by a Black Lives Matter message painted in large yellow letters near the White House in Washington D.C., artists and activist groups have collaborated on similar efforts. Making the message last longer than a passing news photo is a priority for many organizers. 

“Black Lives Matter will mean the same thing tomorrow as it does in one month, and if we rush to throw the words on the ground without having intentionality in our process and our partners, we will be going against what we’re trying to say,” says Amina Hassen, an urban planner and associate at a New York-based architecture firm.

Brenda Thompson, Peggy Sivert, and Tatum Hawkins of SoLA Contemporary stand in an installation of protest signs. Image from the Los Angeles Times.
Brenda Thompson, Peggy Sivert, and Tatum Hawkins of SoLA Contemporary stand in an installation of protest signs. Image from the Los Angeles Times.

Other artists are turning protest signs and artifacts into gallery exhibitions and museum acquisitions. Many curators continue to survey Black Lives Matter protestors, collecting signs, photographs, face masks, and other items used for protest. Speaking with The New York Times, Aaron Bryant of the National Museum of African American History and Culture spoke to the urgency of engaging with protest art: “We talk to people so we don’t forget their stories. History is happening right before us.”

The SoLA Contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles created an impromptu exhibition of protest signs in early July. Many works were placed in the windows to be constantly visible from the street. As galleries, museums, and private collectors begin to engage with Black Lives Matter public and protest art, the preservation of the movement’s energy and message will become a necessary challenge. 

“An important question that museums should not overlook is how to translate the essence of protest on the streets into a confined private space,” says Dr. Maggie Shum of Notre Dame University in Indiana. “Communities and individuals who participated and placed the placards should be consulted. Their stories should be told right.”

Auction Daily will continue coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in the art world as it develops. Our editorial team is committed to accurately representing the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement. Please send your feedback here.