Protest Art
In SWAG high profiles #3
August 2020
Interview Nadia Sesay

There is a photograph, taken in March 1957, of Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King, Jr, when the American revolutionary visited the Gold Coast to celebrate its independence from British rule. In the image, Nkrumah gazes away from the camera with his right arm extended as he waves. His head is turned away from the viewer and instead is focused toward the direction he salutes. His stance is squared with a mild expression. King stands to his side, positioned slightly behind the Prime Minister. He stares ahead and appears pensive, perhaps conjuring ideas on how the African liberation movement could take root in America.

A captured image is a tipping point. The photograph from 1957 captured a moment of hope and measured possibility. Now, however, the catalyst imagery for civil rights is the recorded killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arberry. In the infamous video of Floyd’s final moments, he gasped for air while the knee of a police officer only pressed firmly on his neck with each increasingly sparse breath. Arberry was a young man running through a neighborhood street who was pursued and murdered by a trio of white men. The deaths of both men, recorded live and uploaded to social media, launched a series of protests, peaceful and riotous, for the same equal rights and justice for black Americans that King believed in on his visit to Ghana.

An image – whether photograph, video, or other artistic means – enjoys a proximal relationship to activism and protest. In this pairing, visual artists of African descent employ a richness of expression. The images of protest in New York City, captured by 23-year old photographer Malicke Sidibe and shared to his Instagram profile, have transported viewers of his work from their varied locations thousands of miles displaced from the City, to the center of protest.

Thanks to Sidibe’s background in fashion photography his captured moments are elaborate and theatrical. The composition of bodies – protestors mashed together with police – is lyrical as if it were choreographed, but they are not. In one photographed police pull the limbs of a protestor, while another citizen group pull the opposite side of his body in the other direction like a human game of “tug-of-war”. In another image, a protestor squirms his reddened face in pain, an obvious reaction to having received a burst of pepper spray. He sits on the floor in with a painful expression while Sidibe’s aerial view captures the hands of strangers hovered over him to pour water on his burning face. It is a modern baptism appropriate to the cause. 

Sidibe was born in Cote d’Ivoire but now lives and works in New York City. After gaining acceptance into the Eddie Adams Workshop photography fellowship in 2017, to which only one hundred photographers from around the world are admitted. Sidibe was given a Nikon camera through the fellowship and proceeded to work in fashion photography. When he shared his story on our video interview he confessed the protests inspired a re-direction to photojournalism, setting out “literally last Friday, at the height of the protests, » he said with a smirk. “My friends and I were hanging out and we decided we were going to go where everybody else is protesting – we couldn’t just sit and just watch the news. I grabbed my camera and went out.”

“I ended up getting pepper sprayed a couple times,” he said, confirming his own place among the afflicted subjects of his photographs. “The thing about photography is that you have to predict what’s going to happen. You have to pay attention to the energy out there – pay attention to the people who are protesting.”

Sidibe’s involvement in the protest is not to gather photographs for sake of Instagram fame – he was pepper-sprayed after all. Rather, he repeatedly explained himself as “present”, candidly stating, “I’m one with those people. I’m not there to just get content and walk away.” The tenacity paid off as several of his images were subsequently printed in the New York Times Magazine.

The young Sidibe is close in name to the great Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, whom he considers an inspiration. (Young Sidibe completed a project with Metropolitan Museum in New York, titled “Pop up Portrait Book”, that set up a temporary portrait studio inspired by that of his senior). While the studio portraits from Mali skip the gory details on the streets of Brooklyn, the images produced by both photographers nonetheless glorify blackness. In the Mali studio the sitters exhibited joy and,  as expressed especially in their clothing selections, a palpable pride. The dancing couple of the widely recognized Nuit de Noel photograph find their opposite in the rumbling protestors and police. Yet the joyful dance celebrates their freedom to enjoy the moment carelessly.

While Sidibe captures this moment in civil rights with live photography, an appropriate contrast is the work of artist Tariku Shiferaw, who speaks to black identity and police brutality in an abstract form. While Sidibe’s photography of the protests reflect the true-life dynamism of protest, Shiferaw’s abstract works show no figures. Instead, like the protestors taking their indelible place in history, his art is marked with horizontal lines, or “bars”, cut out directly from the canvas, spray painted, or otherwise creatively marked to indicate ‘the artist was here.’

 “There’s terminology in painting that transcends the social space,” Shiferaw began, in describing the historical context of mark-making – from ancient cave drawings to Impressionism to modern graffiti – and how it was the foundation of his ongoing series, One of These Black Boys. Started in 2016, the series was born from his quest of translating “I was here” – the verbal expression implied by making a mark – to canvas.

His exploration of painting as “self-referential” began with confronting an art history that had been mostly enamored with white male artists – a fascination especially apparent in the field of abstract art. Shiferaw noted however, that abstraction is not traditionally white but rather has been appropriated, as with Picasso and African masks. “I want to engage these painterly gestures and in doing so I want to add my own mark,” he said. “Abstract painting has mostly been about painting and about nothingness. I cannot in the twenty-first century afford to talk about nothingness as a black person.”

What he does talk about through minimalist artworks is the commodification of the black body. Beyond mark-making on canvas Shiferaw also creates works from shipping palettes that he witnessed strewn about urban cities like Los Angeles, where lived after moving from Addis, to present day in New York City. The palettes are markers of capitalism although they relate to immigration as well. In relation to the black body, the crates are required but dispensable: “As a black body immigrating to a Western country like the United States [I witnessed] the commodification of the black body and black culture without the desire for either,” he explained.

The titling of Shiferaw’s works exemplify the transformation of lines on canvas from obsolete to cultural specificity: “Each work is titled with song titles composed by the African diaspora. In doing that I have successfully made a mark that is mine.” He incorporates jazz, blues, hip hop and Afrobeats into an art sphere traditionally known as white and simultaneously provoking the historical stereotypes of the black person as entertainer.

Another consistent theme is Shiferaw’s color palette that is predominantly black and blue. “Some people look at blue with melancholy, but I find peace in that.” The connotations of black hover typically in the negative – the color as a means of emptiness and mourning. For many, blue has a similar contextualization especially as it evokes mood. However, Shiferaw says of blue, “I see the sky – all of these things are happening to the black body under the blue sky.” The meeting of black and blue is “oppositional yet complimentary.”

A deeper consideration of the colors reveals the relationship between black bodies and police, who are nicknamed ‘the boys in blue’. Although this dynamic was not Shiferaw’s original intent, he acknowledges, “Art once created belongs to culture. I was pleased to realize that without me having to talk about the relationship people started connecting it to modern culture.”

He carves the lines from canvas in different arrangements. In All I Know (DaniLeigh) (2018) multiple lines appear in blue spray paint midway through the canvas.  In That Black Boy Fly (Kendrick Lamar) (2016) three thick lines occupy the length of the canvas. In this piece, both the lines and canvas are all black. Although Shiferaw has described the size of his works as, “torso-sized,” he provides less guidance regarding meaning: The interpretations of these two, like the rest of his body of work, are varied. This is a riddle Shiferaw enjoys, confessing, “If you have access to my work and see it every day I hope you don’t get it all in one setting… That’s what I like about [my work]. I like that people relate to it in their own ways.”

The repeating lines originated from his early tinkering with geometry in his art, especially with the letter X. The letter denotes a target, and Shiferaw’s deconstructing of the letter into separate and parallel lines denotes perpetuity. Similarly, the black body as subject in art and object of protest is a continuous motif. The black female body is crucial to this new social revolution. The protests over the murders of Arberry and Floyd intensified with the killing of Breonna Taylor. For months following Breonna’s murder people marched, demonstrated  and created social media campaigns urging officials to arrest the police officers who caused her death. On September 23, 2020 the officers were exonerated, a result that saddened many but surprised few. 

Visual artist Irene Antonia Diane Reece was born in the American south to Mexican and black parents. Her work incorporates family archive and photos with her father’s upbringing during the Civil Rights Movement being especially inspirational. “My father would always read Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison to us growing up, so that has been a specific influence in my work.”(…) Find the full version of  this interview in SWAG #3

SWAG high profiles #3
August 2020
Nadia Sesay