In the days since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, was shot by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., people in more than 170 American cities have taken to the streets in protest against state violence and police brutality against African-Americans and other minority groups. On Dec. 3, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, inciting further protest and shifting the conversation from the deaths of unarmed Black Americans to underlying social dynamics and institutionalized racism. What began as a vigil evolved into a sustained protest and now a movement.
The broad influence of social movements has transcended venues of creative expression, such as artwork. As part of Black History Month and sponsored by Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, O’Neill is hosting the Power of Youth Movements in Black History art exhibit. Featuring artwork created by Frank Garcia-Ornelas, GSSW ’16, the exhibit fuses the historical legacy of nonviolent protest sparked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and current issues of police brutality and state violence faced by the African-American community. By combining visual art and pertinent social issues, Garcia-Ornelas aims to bring incidences of injustice to light.
The Power of Youth Movements in Black History is an art exhibit that Garcia-Ornelas describes as showcasing “the spirit and fight of young Black men and women, and their allies, exhibited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the youth of today.”
The first in a series of graffiti-inspired pieces, Garcia-Ornelas’ “I Am” features his own poetry inscribed on a large red and black paint-splattered canvas. In the last lines of the poem, he conveys a sense of disconnect between his country and his racial identity, stating, “I have faith I still believe, I want peace don’t misconceive / I am of a land that wants me no longer, / Not because I am weak but because I am stronger.”
Perhaps one of Garcia-Ornelas’ most powerful pieces, “The Racial Caste” evokes the image of a black man behind prison bars. The inscription, “This is what the racial caste system looks like,” merges the physical incarceration of black Americans with notions of racial inequality in American society.
The Power of Youth Movements in Black History traces the trajectory of social movements in American history. Garcia-Ornelas’ “Die in for Change,” places the image of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. alongside Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. Beneath the illustrations of the slain black teenagers, Garcia-Ornelas overlays images of protesters staging a “die-in.” In another piece, titled “He Had a Dream,” Trayvon Martin is depicted in his now-iconic hoodie sweatshirt, with images of Dr. King and the words, “He Had a Dream,” superimposed onto the figure. By fusing images of 20th century civil rights activists with contemporary issues of racial discrimination, Garcia-Ornelas reconciles the legacy of Dr. King’s 1964 non-violent march with modern social movements.
The exhibit centers on several themes—racial inequality against black Americans, civil rights protests, and injustices within the current justice system. In one such piece titled, “And Liberty and Justice…,” Garcia-Ornelas depicts the figure of a slain teenager alongside the famous words, “And Liberty and Justice for some.” Paint splatter, graffiti, and brick wall detailing represent, in what Garcia-Ornelas describes as “the toughness and fight that our youth have along with ‘hitting the streets’ mentality to protest these injustices.”
The pieces themselves principally employ black and white for two reasons. “The purpose of these movements is pretty black and white,” says Garcia-Ornelas. “People want equality and justice just like anyone else does. The second reason, and to be very blunt, these issues are almost always a black vs. white issue or a white vs. black issue.” He also utilizes the color red to convey violent imagery and key mantras of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, such as “Stop don’t shoot” and “Tell them my life matters.”
The ultimate goal of creating The Power of Youth Movements in Black History is “to spark educated dialect around the reality of the current state of our nation,” according to Garcia-Ornelas. While the pieces themselves work individually, together they form a movement. With an emphasis on social justice, Garcia-Ornelas hopes to provoke emotion and dialogue by merging the historic struggle for civil rights with modern social movements. It’s all about creating art with a message.
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