Minneapolis has become a city of altars in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which last week ignited a wave of demonstrations across the country in protest of police violence against African-Americans.
“We wanted to portray him in a positive light, not as a martyr but as a hero,” said Cadex Herrera, one of many artists across the Twin Cities who has lent their talents to paintings, poetry, and performances that memorialize Floyd. “We wanted to make sure that his name was remembered.”
But in the background of the mural he created with artists Greta McLain and Xena Goldman, there wasn’t even enough space to write all the names of black people who, like Floyd, had died in police custody. “That says something about America,” he told ARTnews.
Painted last Thursday on the side of the grocery store where Floyd was arrested for allegedly trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill, the mural features a portrait of Floyd surrounded by his name in large block letters, which house a crowd of figures raising their fists in support of Black Power. Behind Floyd is a flaming sunflower that forms a halo, its black center containing a list of other African-Americans who have been killed by police in recent years, including Freddie Grey, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner.
In the days since it was painted, the mural has become an iconic symbol of mourning for a community rocked by Floyd’s death. People have continued to gather at the scene to leave flowers and signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice to be served. A viral video from last week showed Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times as a white police officer held his knee to the 46-year-old black man’s neck. The policeman, Derek Chauvin, has since been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Located just above where Floyd took his last breaths, the mural has become an anchor for a community in mourning, and a symbol of how artists are working to help their neighbors grieve. The mural has also been reproduced internationally, with Floyd’s image featured on murals from London to Berlin. President Barack Obama also used the Minneapolis mural to illustrate his recent Medium essay about Floyd’s death.
Wing Young Huie, an artist who runs the Third Space Gallery on the same block where Floyd was killed, has seen thousands of people gather at the mural to recite poetry, give speeches, sing, and provide performances in honor of the deceased. “It’s been wonderful,” he said. “Art helps people heal.”
Along with several other storefronts in the area, Third Space Gallery is participating in the Power Tree Quilt, a project organized by Million Artist Movement, a collective seeking to dismantle oppressive racist systems that target black, brown, indigenous, and disenfranchised peoples.
Inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the Power Tree Quilt began in response to the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Participants are asked to decorate panels for five-by-five quilts that reflect on the struggle for black liberation and honor lives lost in that fight. “These quilts show up at protests, murder sites, and community gatherings,” explained Signe Harriday, an organizer with Million Artist Movement. “In the quilt squares, which are created by participants, we see people asking for peace, protest, or righteous indignation. It’s almost like a great book that asks you to keep turning [the pages].”
Over the weekend, Harriday was a panelist for a town hall led by black artists. Leslie Barlow was in attendance alongside more than 70 other participants. The meeting was originally supposed to be about how Minneapolis would rebuild its art scene after the coronavirus pandemic subsided, but unrest in the city had prompted a different kind of discussion about resource sharing, helping protesters, and protecting small businesses. Barlow, a Minneapolis native raised three blocks away from where Floyd was killed, has focused her efforts on helping the community heal.
“We want to connect different imagery to talk about a continuum; this is not just one moment but a series of violent acts,” the artist, whose paintings often explore identity and racial constructs, told ARTnews. “We are trying to tell that story while also providing a place for people to self-soothe.”
One major roadblock for artists in the area is their lack of access to supplies due to coronavirus lockdown. Some post offices in the Twin Cities have temporarily suspended deliveries, and the few businesses that carry art supplies are still shuttered because of Covid-19. Barlow has, however, found help from Wet Paint, a local artist supply store that is providing discounts to artists who are looking to create murals.
Across town, Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe) has temporarily converted her studio practice into a mask-making operation for protesters who lack face coverings. Over the weekend, she and fellow artist Jaida Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota) planned to disseminate nearly 300 masks they had made, all printed with the words “I can’t breathe.”
“Art provides an avenue to unite,” said Grey Eagle. “The masks allow people to come together over our message.”
For other artists involved in the community effort to remember Floyd and protest against police violence, the silence from major museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Art has been deafening. “People on the ground can tell when we are receiving lip service versus institutional change,” said Keno Evol, founder and executive director of Black Table Arts, a nonprofit that invites black communities to imagine the future through art-making and political education.
“There has to be evidence of action,” he added, referring to the Walker Art Center, a contemporary art museum. In a recent statement, the museum called for justice in Floyd’s death but would not say if it was severing ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, which sometimes provides personnel for special events. Last week, many of the city’s major institutions cut ties with the local law enforcement, including the University of Minnesota.
Despite relative silence from the city’s biggest art institutions, Evol noted that many of Minneapolis’ other grassroots organizations like Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, and Springboard for the Arts are doing the important work of community outreach.
“Artists are centers of imagination,” Evol explained. “We are hopeful, but we are not optimistic.”