UNCG Magazine


Spartan artists proclaim Black Lives Matter in broad strokes

With the horrifying video from Minneapolis of police choking George Floyd, pinning the man’s neck to the street for 8 minutes, the world could no longer look away. The deaths of Black men and women at the hand of police or self-appointed vigilantes have filled the headlines, one after another.

The summer of 2020 seemed to mark a societal shift. People marched down streets and barged through big-box stores. They blogged and tweeted. They read and listened, while others shouted. Black artists and allies – including many Spartans – created very public art to amplify the issues and to represent what they knew deep inside: pain, hope, and constant struggle.

Phillip Marsh was an organizer for BLM artwork efforts on S. Elm Street.

Art as action

“One love.” It’s a radical lyric.

Phillip Marsh grew up as hip-hop music was emerging in popular culture. But the music and Rastafarian philosophy of Bob Marley was his guiding beacon.

Phillip’s neighborhood outside Washington, DC, was a tough one. He had some run-ins with the law. “Made some choices,” as he explains. Once you have a record, it gets harder to get a job, he adds.

For him, it wasn’t police. “My problem was with the system,” again and again. Finally, a drug possession conviction put him in prison for three years.

But he found his life’s calling. Art put him on a trajectory to express his outlook on the world, and to make his livelihood.

Kidd Graves ’20 interacts with artwork she helped create at Elsewhere Museum.

Give it extra dimension

Every artist has a story.

Kidd Graves ’20 arrives for the planning meeting for the large plywood storefront at Elsewhere Museum. What’s the message, the tale to tell?

The artists gather round, wearing masks or social distancing. They build on their discussions from the weekend before: it’ll be the narrative of a Black girl, developing her voice. The center will be a butterfly.

Kidd will help craft the dramatic three-dimensional wings, a symbol of metamorphosis. She proposed the 3-D flower designs, and will create those as well.

With the given name Karena, Kidd identifies as a woman sometimes, as non-binary gender sometimes, she says. She aligns with the Black Lives Matter movement. “I don’t necessarily consider myself an activist. I consider myself an artist.”

Kidd earned her UNCG degree in sculpture in May, and is now enrolled in graduate school at ECU to hone her work. She wants to explore, through her art, “my Blackness, my queerness.”

Essence Foster’s mural depicts a Black woman, her face a swirl of emotions.

Paint it loud

Near the Lewis St. corner, Essence Foster has completed her work, an image of a woman created with charcoal, spray paint, and a collage of magazine clippings. Through a mask, Essence speaks with the other artists, as dusk approaches.

Essence, who already holds a bachelor’s degree, is on the pre-med track at UNCG. With an inner need to help people and a sweet spot for children, she plans to be a pediatrician.

Black History, Black Art

Nejla Harris paints upward-stretching triangles to represent the uplifting of Black men.

Across the street, Nejla Harris is putting final touches on her work.

“Breathe for those who don’t get a chance to.” – Londrelle

“Black love, Brown pride.” – Nipsey Hussle

These quotes set the tone for Nejla’s mural: the first referencing the horrific murder of George Floyd and the second sending a message of unity.

When the protests ended, Nejla didn’t wait for an invitation.

After seeing artists downtown, she called her friend Ryan Oakley – a Wake Forest University alumna who’d taken UNCG summer courses. They picked a plywood wall, and went to work. They composed separate pieces, which together formed “To Be Black Is: Black Men & Black Women.”

People of color are a common theme of Nejla’s art. She’s always taken an interest in Black history, and at UNCG she’s pursuing a minor in African diaspora studies to complement her degree in interior architecture – noting she didn’t want to study art because it’s too personal to her.

University Libraries recommended books about racial justice. Perspectives on racism and White privilege from fellow Spartans. UNCG policies on discrimination. A listing of upcoming talks. These resources and many more are hosted on the Racial Equity at UNCG website.

“In moments of great pain, universities can show the way forward, but we must be fearless and bold enough to name that which is most difficult to acknowledge – and this is the promise of the website. It is a gathering place where we may ask difficult questions, seek out a community in dialogue, and find resources to learn and grow as we affirm our commitment to racial equity and shared fate,” says Dr. Andrea Hunter, professor and, along with Dr. Julia Mendez Smith, a Chancellor’s Fellow for Campus Climate.

Continue the conversation

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THE VIOLENCE OF GEORGE FLOYD’S final moments, witnessed through social media by millions, was revelatory for many Americans. Dr. Jocelyn R. Smith Lee has been focused on the relationship between law enforcement and Black males for years. Her 2019 research article published in the Journal of Black Psychology, “That’s My Number One Fear in Life. […]

Art in Action

  • Phillip Marsh
  • Essence Foster (courtesy photos)
  • Phillip Marsh
  • Nejla Harris
  • Kidd Graves
  • Essence Foster
  • Nejla Harris
  • Phillip Marsh
  • Essence Foster (courtesy photos). L-R: Essence painting near Lewis St. corner; a closeup of words on her mural
  • Kidd Graves
  • Nejla Harris (photo on the left is a courtesy photo)
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