Artists lead the change
Six vibrant murals greeted shoppers at the Nov. 10 reopening of the Target store on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis — a phoenix moment for a neighborhood set aflame just seven months ago.
Created by five young Black artists in a remarkable partnership between the multibillion-dollar retail chain and a resourceful North Side nonprofit, Juxtaposition Arts, the work reflects how George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police galvanized artists to think anew about the roles they can play in effecting social change.
Avahnii Lewis, 19, contributed a collage called "Envision Change," inspired by this past summer's protests.
"It's pieced together to represent individuals who are part of a bigger whole," said Lewis, a junior lab director at Juxtaposition who now studies graphic design at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. "Behind those faces are flowers and plants, beauty and life, memorializing those who have passed away."
Like the store itself, Lewis intimated, their spirits will rise into a changed landscape that may move closer to the nation's ideals.
Taking a dream and making it flesh is what artists do — and now, more than ever, creative acts are what's needed.
Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, describes Floyd's death as "a shatter moment" — something that explodes the bubbles we all live in, revealing a society intimately tied together.
That view, of wreckage and disparities that can't be denied, jibes with how activist artist Shá Cage sees the impact, and the promise, of the tragedy.
"There are so many pieces on the floor and we're picking them up," said Cage. "What's different about this moment is that we're not able to actually step over any of the pieces or the rubble. It's the first time I've experienced anything this visceral and clear about the nation's need for transformative change."
Cage responded to that moment by assembling an anthology of essays, poems and stories by Black artists, called "Moment of Silence," while also working to tackle disparities in philanthropy and bring political change.
Various Twin Cities artists and arts organizations have stepped into the gap. Pillsbury House Theatre and Mixed Blood Theatre became service centers in their neighborhoods. At the grassroots level, the Twin Cities-based Million Artist Movement has led community-created artmaking activities. Founded in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown, it has created numerous quilts at vigils and protests.
"What we try to do in these moments of extreme trauma is be present, loving and responsive as we help the community navigate pain," said theater artist Signe Harriday, one of the cooperative's lead organizers. "Art is our vehicle to do that. We live in a world that is deeply and critically impacted by state-sanctioned violence — it's the fabric that weaves much of the context we find ourselves in at this moment."
Similarly, Bellamy has rebranded Penumbra as a "center for racial healing," expanding the theater's mission to include health and wellness and racial equity.
"The killing of George Floyd is this generation's Emmett Till moment," she said, invoking the 1955 murder of a Black teenager that galvanized the civil rights movement. "We had undeniable, uninterrupted visual footage of a murder — a shocking and traumatizing thing to witness.
"White folks didn't necessarily know or believe that something like that could happen. But we carry that history in our bodies every day."
Arts have led the way
In some ways, the Twin Cities arts community has anticipated this reckoning faced by realms from sports to business, politics to the pulpit. Companies from the Guthrie and Children's Theatre to the Jungle and Theatre Latté Da have worked to represent diversity both onstage and behind the scenes.
It's not just the faces we see, after all. Who will get to tell stories, and under what terms, as awakened Americans build a future together?
"This question about representation and narrative is a key piece of what folks seem to be turning towards, post-George Floyd," said DeAnna Cummings.
Twenty-five years ago, Cummings co-founded Juxtaposition, the seminal center that has trained Avahnii Lewis and thousands of other young people for art and design careers. Now she's stepping into a broader role as arts program director at the McKnight Foundation, which funnels millions of dollars into the community each year.
"There seems to be a new awakening to the need for BIPOC artists to be centered in story — to be in charge of the narrative about who we are, where we've been, where we're going, what our dreams are and what we have contributed to this place," said Cummings.
"There was a period of a few months where the cover of nearly every magazine I saw as I checked out had Black folks on them. On the morning shows, they had Black guests on as experts on fitness, relationships, Black doctors. That representation, that shift toward feeling seen and being seen — I had never seen that in my entire life."
The arts has a role to play in keeping Americans focused on one core fact, said Cummings: "The impact of having a group of people who are a permanent underclass across all social, educational, health, economic and other measurements — whether you call it white supremacy, inequality, inequity, anti-Blackness — has hurt all."
Floyd's death caused Minnesotans, and the world, to take a harder look at a state that routinely lands on top 10 lists for its quality of life. What they saw doesn't jibe.
"Minnesota represents a crucible of inequity for Black Americans and Native Americans," Bellamy said. "It's not just about a police officer. It's about the society that dehumanizes Black and Native life and is very polite about its brutal maintenance of these disparities."
At Penumbra, "we're focused on detoxifying the stress and the trauma and on art that can dream new worlds — dream us into liberation," Bellamy said. "One of the most profound things that the arts can lend to this moment is to bear witness, to not forget the story or allow people to become acclimated to the brutality of this violence.
"The arts can help us keep that heart-line open to people's empathy, and to care for each other."