From The Streets To The Galleries, Artists Responded To Ferguson
Five years ago, Kevin and Danielle McCoy were making art that wasn’t particularly political.
“We made a lot of safe work,” Kevin McCoy said, “but it didn’t have a lot of meaning. It didn’t get to the crux of the issues.”
Then white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed, 18-year-old black man. Brown's death sparked weeks of protests in Ferguson, unrest that reverberated in the local arts community. Black artists formed new alliances and reached new platforms, but also bumped up against enduring divides over race in this community.
Across the region, many were outraged that police left Brown’s body in the street for hours. Protesters in Ferguson and beyond decried his treatment and longstanding law enforcement policies and practices they said abused black people. A grand jury later decided not to indict Wilson in the shooting, sparking more protests.
The McCoys, a married couple whose work as graphic designers informs their visual art, were among those who felt compelled to adopt a sharper political edge with their work.
“It’s like: I’m gonna say it. I’m not gonna filter, my wife’s not gonna filter,” McCoy said. “If it makes people uncomfortable, that’s the whole purpose. We’re not comfortable!”
Their exhibition last year at Kranzberg Arts Gallery explored the history of colorism within black communities. For an event at St. Louis Art Museum in January 2019, they created a poster filled with facts about the bloody atrocities that Belgium committed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the country now known as Democratic Republic of Congo.
The McCoys took several months to digest the unrest in Ferguson and its aftermath before starting to make more work. Others used their chosen art forms to respond to Brown’s killing within weeks.
Before the end of August 2014, there was a benefit concert for the Brown family featuring 14 acts. A benefit concert that month at the Ready Room called “Bands Up, Don’t Shoot” raised money for social justice groups. In early September, Brian Owens, a Ferguson-based soul singer and youth pastor, organized the Heal Ferguson Concert for Peace and Unity at the Ferguson Heights Church of Christ.
Local jazz pianist Adam Maness, who is white, debuted a musical suite he hastily wrote in response to Brown’s shooting, called “Divides That Bind,” at the concert. He performed it with more than a dozen musicians from St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Owens later released an album called “Soul of Ferguson,” with several songs inspired by #Ferguson. Not as explicitly political as other work inspired by that painful historical episode, the songs fuse positive wishes for the future with soulful grooves that recall classic Marvin Gaye.
Local hip-hop artist Tef Poe dropped a hard-hitting track that described Ferguson as “Barack Obama’s Katrina.” He criticized several Missouri officials, including then-Gov. Jay Nixon and then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, both Democrats.
The musical response went beyond the hip-hop world.
Local country artist Jack Grelle’s song “Changes Never Made” reflected on what he saw as the failure of the region’s institutions to adopt meaningful reforms in response to Brown’s killing.
Visual artists sprang into action as well. Just weeks after Wilson killed Brown, artists banded together for #ChalkedUnarmed. They drew outlines of human bodies on city sidewalks, labelled with names of other unarmed black men who’ve been killed by police.
Art collector Freida L. Wheaton, who founded the regional Alliance of Black Art Galleries a year earlier, put out a call for new work responding to Brown’s shooting. Two months after his death, the Alliance featured many artists in a show called “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” that spread across 18 different venues.
Another group of artist-activists formed the housing cooperative Art House, in the Greater Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. Members mix art-making with social activism. Dail Chambers, an artist and wellness advocate, bought a house across the street and relocated her Ye-Yo Arts Collective to nearby.
Her work was already political, but #Ferguson prompted her to rethink her approach. Chambers closed her studio near Cherokee Street in south St. Louis to stay closer to the black communities she wanted to inspire to make art.
“I had to learn about how my practice was not accessible to everyone. Because the people that I was really talking to still had to journey to the point of making art in the first place. No, maybe I had to come to the folks,” she said.
As black artists formed alliances and showed work in predominantly black spaces, #Ferguson also prompted more interest in their work among white art collectors and predominantly white institutions.
“Part of racism in the arts is that a lot of these artists and their work were invisible to the mainstream arts establishment,” said Adrienne Davis, an art collector and founding director of Washington University’s new Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity, which will open in October.
“So I think #Ferguson, it created some fractures and it opened up some space where people were able to actually see and appreciate the import of this work that had been going on for a long time,” she said.
But the heightened interest in black artists was not enough, Davis said, to get some white art lovers to travel to historically black neighborhoods. When she extended invitations to visit Wheaton’s “legendary” home gallery, she recalled, some white collectors balked.
“I live in Central West End; she lives maybe a mile from me. It took me three minutes to get to her house. But I knew people who wouldn’t want to go north of Delmar [Boulevard] to see her extraordinary collection.
“Now, has #Ferguson changed that? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
The Museum of African American History, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., acquired the deeply evocative sculptural piece “Mirror Casket,” created by artists De Andrea Nichols, Marcis Curtis, Sophie Lipman, Damon Davis, Mallory Nezam, Derek Laney and Elizabeth Vega. The piece was carried through the streets during the Ferguson protests.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of acceptance by the mainstream art establishment came when the Smithsonian Institution acquired a collection of Ferguson protest signs and banners. But the movement’s presence in front of predominantly white audiences was not always by invitation.
Immediately before the second half of a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert in October 2014, a multi-racial group of protesters stood and sang a hymn-like refrain called “Requiem for Mike Brown.”
“Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all,” they sang, borrowing the melody from an old union song that had previously been rewritten for the civil rights movement. They unfurled protest banners from the balcony and dropped paper hearts onto the audience.
Several audience members stood and applauded; others appeared visibly shocked or confused. On a video of the protest made by St. Louis American reporter Rebecca Rivas, one audience member can be heard saying of Brown: “He was a thug.”
Conductor Markus Stenz faced the audience and watched the demonstration respectfully. Several members of the orchestra applauded at the end.
The St. Louis American reported that the protest was organized by Sarah Griesbach, a white woman who lived in Central West End, and it included a mix of white, black and Latino residents of greater St. Louis.
Afterward, SLSO did not criticize the protesters. The orchestra’s publicist said the symphony was “appreciative.” At a concert with its predominantly African American In Unison Chorus a few months later, the symphony played Maness’ suite, “Divides That Bind.”
As longstanding institutions in St. Louis grappled with #Ferguson, there were missteps and successes.
A 2016 exhibition at Contemporary Art Museum by New York-based white artist Kelley Walker featured photos of black subjects that many viewers found demeaning. Walker had taken existing photos and altered them; on some, he smeared chocolate or toothpaste. In a statement, Walker said he intended to “create thoughtful, sometimes difficult dialogues” with the work. Many black museum visitors said the work appropriated images of African Americans in an exploitative manner.
Damon Davis, whose documentary about the Ferguson uprising (“Whose Streets?”) would be a hit at the Sundance Film Festival the next year, led a boycott of the museum. The controversy drew national attention. The show opened Sept. 16; chief curator Jeffrey Uslip announced on Oct. 10 that he’d found a new job elsewhere.
Poet Cheeraz Gormon viewed the show as outsiders profiting from black trauma and later described it as a “major debacle.” She had held back from writing new work about #Ferguson, but this episode moved her to compose a poem.
In it, she writes: “Controversy makes for good career moves/ Perhaps the taste of black suffering is just too delectable to resist.”
Leaders of CAM appeared to learn from the experience. In 2018, the museum showed a collection of work that graphically addressed gun violence through, in part, recontextualizing existing images of black people. African American artist Sanford Biggers took African sculptures, recast them in bronze, and defaced them with gunfire.
He named one piece after Michael Brown Jr. That show was much better received.
St. Louis Art Museum commissioned famed portraitist Kehinde Wiley for a 2018 exhibition of paintings of people he met on the street in Ferguson and north St. Louis. Painting subjects and their friends and families celebrated the show for portraying black Americans in a stylized, regal manner that made visual references to centuries-old paintings of white aristocrats.
Artists continue to create new work inspired by #Ferguson and wrestling with its legacy. This past season, the Black Rep premiered “Canfield Drive,” a play based on interviews with Ferguson protesters. A papier-mache cast of Michael Brown Sr.’s torso will be featured in the exhibition “As I See You: A Tribute to Mike Brown Jr.,” which will be on view at the Urban League’s Ferguson Empowerment Center, Friday through Sunday.
Davis said the flood of new work responding to Brown’s death and all that came after is likely to continue for years, and will be considered by art historians as a coherent movement.
“This is a moment that I suspect, when we go back and are period-izing, we may say it winds up being something like a decade or maybe 15 years in which you can think of a broad set of genres of art that were inspired by #Ferguson.”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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