Black deaths in custody are once again in the political spotlight, both in America, due to the unjust killing of George Floyd alongside many others, and in Australia, due to the recent inquest into the death of David Dungay. These Black men died a world apart, united by the same final words, ‘I can’t breathe’. Tragedies of this nature are by no means new, but the worldwide protests prove that more people are starting to listen. It’s taken centuries for that to happen, and we should spend some time thinking about how and why that is the case.
There has rightly been a focus on the important role of viral recordings of injustice sparking mass protests through social media, but as an artist, I’ve been thinking about the place of public artworks in revolutionary moments. For example, one way to get people’s attention is to paint a statement in 35-foot-high letters on the road leading up to the White House. On June 5th, a collective of artists commissioned by DC mayor Muriel Bowser did just that.
Their monumental text reads ‘Black Lives Matter’ in bright yellow, and was completed just hours before the city’s curfew took effect. Moments later, Bowser held a press conference to publicly announce that the two-block section of 16th Street NW would now be known as Black Lives Matter Plaza. Similar murals have been painted across the US, in cities such as Sacramento, Charlotte, Oakland, Denver and Seattle.
These murals are a stark reminder of the violence continually inflicted on Black bodies, but the issue of racial violence runs much deeper. Black deaths in custody are just one element in the broader gamut of white supremacy, which maintains the social, economic and political disparities of minority cultural groups in contrast to the dominant social group. The amount of people responding to ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter’ demonstrates that ignorance is still mainstream: they do not recognise white supremacy as a systemic force, and that these significant disparities exist because of a long lineage of racial violence. This racial violence is not experienced in the same way or to the same degree by Caucasian bodies who identify with the dominant cultural group.
These are difficult conversations to be had, but through them, these issues become increasingly visible: as does the lack of investment and education needed to address them.
Public political murals are commonly the result of media exclusion or interference. When publicly voicing opposition to social norms isn’t widely supported or encouraged, the street can provide an alternate platform.
Artworks of this nature have historically contributed a surge of power and inspiration to political movements. Activist artists scrawled graffiti, painted murals, pasted up posters and took over billboards throughout the Russian revolution, the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 1973 Chilean coup and The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although protest art can promote ideas and conversations, it’s important to note that conversation is not the point, the point is to create change. This is difficult to achieve in a public space rigidly influenced by social norms: artworks that stray too far outside these parameters are often seen as ‘offensive’ and are quick to be censored or removed.
It’s worth nothing that the Washington mural ended with three stars from the DC flag, used to suggest a stamp of approval or support by the state. Just 24 hours after it was painted, the DC mural was altered by Black Lives Matter activists, covering over the three stars and adding ‘Defund the Police’ to the end of the mural. The Washington chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement condemned the artwork, calling it ‘a performative distraction from real policy change… Bowser has consistently been on the wrong side of BLMDC history’.
The stars were repainted, but the words were allowed to stay. Who, then, is the real author: the municipality or the movement? The immediacy of the commission, as well as the state intervention thereafter, smacks of empty political symbolism: it gives the impression that meaningful change is happening through visible cues like public art murals, but it is not supported by action. This is a recurring issue when creating public artwork around structural violence and political change, as the process to present public artwork is to seek permission via the same structures which cause oppression.
What power dynamics are at play when protest artwork is sanctioned? Does this alter the intent of the artwork? Yes, political murals can spark change and mediate political issues, but this relies on the voices of artists and activists being heard, respected and validated in a meaningful, rather than tokenistic way.
When it comes to the agency of minority communities in particular, more often than not our art is seen as too provocative because they contrast against, and are resistant to the dominant narrative. In Australia, the racialised underbelly of the Arts is recognised when acceptable political content, including politics of minority communities, are largely executed by the dominant social group. These occurrences which are celebrated under the guise of ‘allyship’, prevent self-determined authorship of those communities and affirm that agency of Black content is dependent on White comfort. This standard of acceptability including legitimacy of authorship are just some of the building blocks of white supremacy and are reaffirmed every time an artist’s work or community’s voice is censored.
Besides the Thornbury mural in Melbourne, which amongst other historical elements, documents the displacement of Indigenous peoples via two Aboriginal men shackled in chains, there are not many other politically direct murals that remain long enough to document. This is not to be confused with murals which are politicised because Aboriginal and minority communities are politicised’ such as the Redfern and Newtown murals in Sydney or the recent trend of Aboriginal portraiture across the country. Although these public artworks do contribute to an increase of social presence, comparatively speaking, they are politically passive.
Political art in the public space has a profound ability to bypass preconceived ideas of race, gender and sexuality, inspiring community action and accountability. In contrast, comfortable avoidance of these discussions are the cause and effect of why these issues continue; why much of dominant society don’t understand racial supremacy and why political art is co-opted and censored in public spaces. As a society we should increase our engagement and support of the Arts as a platform for political change, or risk spending another century yet to outgrow the nation’s infancy.
Warraba Weatherall is an installation and street artist from the Kamilaroi Nation of South-West Queensland.