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Ferguson artists blur boundaries between activism and art

at the post office s. grand 11.26
Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio

After the death of Michael Brown, artists—of the St. Louis region and nationwide—quickly began examining and commemorating their confusion and pain.

St. Louis Public Radio arts reporters Nancy Fowler and Willis Ryder Arnold joined “St. Louis on the Air” to talk about artists’ responses to Ferguson and the links between art and activism that have helped drive the movement.

“Almost immediately, artists began to respond,” said Nancy Fowler. “I remember the first thing I noticed was at the protest at the Justice Center just a few days after, you know, the death of Michael Brown. There was a chalk outline of a body on the ground, and it occurred to me that that was actually art. And that sort of was how it started, at a grassroots level, and then grew as the different organizations began to formally address some of these issues.”

Visual art was initially and viscerally impactful; symbols like the Gateway Arch were repurposed to show either division or unity, and “hands up, don’t shoot” became a potent, recurring motif in many works of painting, illustration, and of course photography.

Those strong symbols were incorporated into all art forms, from visual to musical to performative. “People are taking media reports or images from the media and kind of remixing those,” Arnold said. “They’re incorporating photos into paintings or collages, and in music, they’re using a lot of samples.”

Including news media—images and audio—is like using evidence, using found material that grounds the artwork in the problems Ferguson exposed. “I think there’s an effort to understand, there’s a quest to understand and make sense of things,” Fowler said.

“It seems like a lot of the art, especially in the theater world, focuses on the historical tensions between African-American communities and law enforcement,” she added—particularly “Black and Blue,” a play featuring some protesters of the Ferguson movement, which was written by Lee Patton Chiles and produced by arts nonprofit Gitana Productions.

As much as artists seek to understand, they also seek to subvert common narratives about the protests and issues at stake. “A lot of the art actually seems to work to upset people’s expectations of the art that’s going to be produced,” Arnold said. For example, he cited a photography exhibit featuring photos of daylight protests, which flipped the common media script of evening riots, nighttime violence, and breaking curfew.

The subversion of common narratives—and the search for political, historical, and emotional understanding—may be due to the fact that many artists in and around Ferguson are also activists.

“The boundaries between artist and activist have actually blurred,” Arnold said. “Many people keep arts stuff ready and at hand so that when there’s something that demands attention from the arts community, they’re ready to produce it.”

The issues demanding attention have not disappeared a year later, Fowler said. “I think it’s going to be a focus for a long time, and we’re going to grapple with what it means through art for a long time.”

Related Event

Looking at Ferguson

The Nine Network and St. Louis Public Radio will activate the Public Media Commons with a screening of community-created content centered on issues brought to the forefront by the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. 

  • Friday, August 7
  • 5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.
  • Public Media Commons: 3653 Olive St., St. Louis, MO, 63108

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by theMissouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

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