During times of unrest against anti-Black violence, art can serve as a vital avenue for Black people to express the complexity of our lives; perhaps even soothe our wounds. Since the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, America, as a whole, has had to contend with the visceral nature of Black trauma and suffering at the hands of white supremacy. Once more, double consciousness forces our pain, rage, and humanity to the forefront as we contend with the world’s need to consume every part of our being; while we are simply attempting to express ourselves and exist. The relationship between expression and existence caused me to think about how pain and creativity, breath and making, show up in the work of Black artists in Ohio.
In Columbus, Ohio, one of the many current epicenters of resistance against police violence and systemic racism, many Black artists, like myself, exist within the crossroads of how to survive as a Black person and an artist. During the first days of protest here, I found myself speeding home to beat curfew with my roommates and watching the streets empty of others’ cars on my way home. A chill swept through me as I realized the National Guard was really in the city that I lived in.
During those first days, I watched as other Black people expressed their anger through rioting and challenging the Columbus Division of Police. While passing a group of Black men attempting to shatter the windows of a restaurant lobby, I noticed two white men in suits with guns as they stared and calculated how to defend what they saw as theirs; which was the property that they inhabited. In that moment, I realized that those willing to confront the problem of America’s racial terror were also willing to confront how these images of rioting; although jarring, open up a deeper well of what some expressions of Black resistance has looked like historically under white supremacy. And how these images of black bodies, sweaty and angry and livid, was White America’s fever dream, which suddenly it couldn’t fall asleep from.
It is this moment of psychic realization about the state of being Black in America that reshaped the meaning of Bob Marley’s song, Burnin and Lootin, to me; as I listened to the lyrics only days into curfew. In my own family’s history on the island of Jamaica, which included the government declaring state of emergencies, colluding with local gangs to gain political control, and an ongoing struggle against the evils of capitalistic individualism, I felt a new kind of solidarity to freedom struggles in Afro-diaspora. Although written in 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica, Marley belting the lyrics, “This morning, I woke up in a curfew,” could still apply to a Black boy living in America in 2020. With this newfound sense of creative and political solidarity, I had to also contend with how Black art both frees us and makes us hyper aware that we, as Black people, are continuing the same political struggle in a different time period.
For local artists, especially those who are native to Ohio, seeing our state change so drastically during a short period of time can throw our creative processes into chaos. Local artists, however, are asking questions of how they should alter their creative process to speak to the times. During Black Queer and Intersectional Collective’s Juneteenth celebration in collaboration with Columbus Freedom Coalition, writer, Hanif Abdurraqib, shared the poem, “I Must Become A Menace To My Enemies” by June Jordan to remind protestors of the need to turn away from progressive ideals of the wholly moral and resilient Black person in a racist society, and instead fixate on confronting the social ills around us as doggedly as possible. At the same event, protestors stuck makeshift tombstones into the front yard of Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther to symbolize the many people killed by police violence.
For Ben Willis, a 28-year-old Black artist in Columbus who is most known for his local portraiture; first dove into photography casually and then opened up to the ways that it helped him see his community.
“I felt most local I suppose when other artists recognized my work,” says Willis, “Or when people would greet my invitation to be photographed with enthusiasm, or admiration.”
Willis is dedicated to showcasing the inter-generational dynamics of Columbus through photographing and interviewing older residents, as well as taking portraits of community members, peers, friends, and fellow artists. This hyper-local and personal perspective gives Willis’ photos a clear sense of history, sentimentality, and presence, especially since he shoots in film, a medium that requires extra technical skill.
Willis spoke to the inherent double consciousness that is unearthed during times of political unrest where artists should ask themselves why they feel compelled to photograph or document political conflict. He elaborates, “I think there’s a magnetism to things of this nature (Civil Unrest) and that magnetism creates urgency in almost everything, but art and artists often prey upon these opportunities. We like to think we are helping by photographing and sharing what’s taking place, but rarely do we ask why we as individuals need to make art at a time like this. If an artist can’t answer that honestly I don’t know how they can make anything at all.”
Willis’ question on art and purpose during racial and political turmoil is spoken to directly by writer James Baldwin. In 1984, Baldwin wrote, “Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness.”
For other artists and organizers in Ohio, the ways to engage with the times can look like different things.
Kelsi Carter co-founded Shooting Without Bullets, a Cleveland based for-impact program that uses art activism to “develop and elevate the youth artistic voice in order to shift policy, perspective, and culture around issues of social justice in both the arts and society.” The program started in 2014 shortly after the police murders of Cleveland residents, Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson. One of Shooting Without Bullets’ biggest goals is giving Black and Brown youth a lens to process their feelings, thoughts, and trauma. The collective has helped cultivate young artists who dance, rap, sing, and do photography. Lai Lai Booner, a 19-year-old Cleveland resident, was inspired by the program to make photography her main craft.
Whether it be music, dance, photography, or the act of bringing other artists together, Black art is intrinsically tied to bearing witness to reality, processing it, producing culture out of that reality, and ultimately surviving one reality to achieve a more liberating one. Throughout Ohio, this fact is evident. Even during times of intense unrest, Black artists will surely continue to innovate. On how he sees the artists around him coming together, Willis states, “Again I think there is a magnetism, or as I’ve had conversations with friends, a rhythm. I think if an artist has a sense of community, they’re gonna be drawn to those that create as well. We need one another, to make sense of all this. Not even make sense, but rather make it through. To endure. Art is a bridge to something, to someone or somewhere: to emotion, aesthetic, connection, cause. And artists, I believe, help construct that fastening between humanity and everything else.
Prince Shakur has written on queer culture, youth activism, prison systems/police, black representation in film, and conscious travel for Teen Vogue, AfroPunk, Daily Dot, Electric Literature, and more. He has organized around Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, anti-gentrification, struggles at the US/Mexico border, and is a lead organizer with Black Queer and Intersectional Collective. He co-founded Two Woke Minds, a documentary and travel series, with Eli Hiller and earned the 2017 Rising Star Grant from GLAAD. He is writing his debut memoir and novel, and is represented by Elle McKenzie of Ladderbird Literary Agency. He is also a featured artist in the AFTER STONEWALL Exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, which Art News called one of “The Best Shows of The Most Important Art Exhibitions of the 2010’s”.