What Will Become of Oakland’s Black Lives Matter Murals?

A mural in downtown Oakland commemorating George Floyd, by DeredWRK (@deredwrk). (Cianni Jackson)

Sometimes the energy of a movement looks like the mass mobilization of people marching towards a common goal, and sometimes it’s hundreds of square feet of painted plywood.

In May, as protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin began in downtown Oakland, businesses covered their storefronts with plywood, inadvertently creating surfaces primed for messages of liberation and solidarity. In the days that followed, artists and volunteers lined the sidewalks with buckets and spray cans of paint, putting up Cornel West quotes, Black Power imagery and, over and over again, the names of those killed by police.

Almost as soon as these large-scale murals went up, people began asking how the ephemeral pieces of public art could be preserved.

“The consensus is that this is an important time,” says Randolph Belle, spokesperson for the Black Cultural Zone, a coalition of Black residents, leaders and organizers working to keep Black culture and people in East Oakland. “The movement is what we’re most concerned with. But the artwork is obviously a result of the protests, and the protests are a result of the historical injustices.”

The Black Cultural Zone, Betti Ono Gallery, and other Black-led arts organizations, with support from ally organizations like the Oakland Museum and Oakland Art Murmur, are now attempting to bring some order to the preservation of murals that emerged spontaneously and without centralized coordination. The Black Cultural Zone has launched an online form to help identify artists and artworks, which business owners or landlords can use to let the group know if they’re planning to remove a mural.

(Endeavors, a project affiliated with Oakland’s Good Mother Gallery, has simultaneously created an online gallery of mural documentation, also hosts a form which promises to notify artists when their boards are removed.)

Artist unknown. (Cianni Jackson)

Still, certain questions linger: Should pieces go back to the artists, stay with the businesses, go into archival storage, or remain on view at another public location?

Oakland Museum of California Director Lori Fogarty underscores Belle’s point about focusing on the movement, first and foremost, over the murals. Though the institution was on many minds as a possible home for the murals, Fogarty says the museum isn’t yet looking to accession artwork or schedule an exhibition. Instead, OMCA is providing logistical support to the preservation efforts.

“Black-led organizations and artists need to be at the forefront,” Fogarty says. “It is a paradigm shift we need to acknowledge and honor at every step.”

Curator and arts organizer Ashara Ekundayo watched the murals go up, visiting the downtown gallery every day. She says early on her conversations with artists raised red flags about the challenges of documenting and preserving the murals. “What alarmed me was that very few of the artists had thought about the importance and value of their work, and what could happen to it without them knowing and being credited or compensated,” she says.

She also noticed racial and cultural dynamics playing out in the murals: white artists were being commissioned to write “Black Lives Matter” on boarded-up storefronts and Black artists were not being paid for their work. Not acknowledging the artwork as valuable, particularly the work of Black artists, Ekundayo says, “will continue to perpetuate this idea that artists will make art for free and that we can disrespect them.”

“From the Black Cultural Zone specifically, we really wanted to be documenters of the documentation,” Belle says. “We don’t want to own a movement, but it is important that a Black voice holds this conversation. As people are saying that this feels different, we’ve got to make sure it is different.”

In this vein, Betti Ono Gallery is hosting a conversation on Thursday, June 25, for Black artists and community members to collectively decide how to honor, preserve and protect the art. Possible outcomes Belle lists off include reinstallation of the murals in a lot in East Oakland, a spot the Black Cultural Zone currently uses as a distribution point for hot meals, produce and other supplies. Or, he says, “Some of the panels could be used to build something semi-permanent.” An in-depth immersive exhibition incorporating video footage of the murals, or something similar, could take place several years down the road.

“We have no interest in nor would we support privatizing this art other than in the hands of the artists and support of our Black community,” the Black Cultural Zone writes in the description for Thursday’s event.

But as discussions about how to collect and preserve the murals continue, many of the artworks are already coming down—and only some of their destinations are known.

Cece Carpio and the Trust Your Struggle Collective painted three murals in downtown Oakland. “We just went forward and protested the way we knew how, which is to paint up the streets,” she says. They weren’t thinking, at the time, about the future of their work.

One of those murals—featuring five raised hands and fists and the text “We Got Us” over the boarded-up doors of a Chase bank—became the backdrop for an altar to those killed by police violence. When workers later arrived with the task of removing the plywood to create an entrance to the building, they refused to dismantle the altar.

“They saw our crew name and made the call to make sure this is preserved,” Carpio says. “It was very lucky and fortunate that it was within the community of folks.” Carpio was able to call her friends to move the altar, and the workers delivered the plywood boards directly to her own Oakland backyard.

Other muralists say they too thought only passingly about the future of their murals as they worked to get them up. Estella Tse and Sofia Sharpe, who both grew up in Oakland, painted a mural in honor of Breonna Taylor on June 5—what would have been her 27th birthday.

“Her name was kind of getting swept in between larger events happening around her, and she wasn’t getting a lot of the recognition for the justice she deserved,” Sharpe says of the impulse behind their painting. Only one of the three officers who shot Taylor has been fired; the other two have been placed on administrative reassignment, and none have been charged.

The mural in honor of Breonna Taylor's 27th birthday, painted by Sofia Sharpe and Estella Tse. (Cianni Jackson)

Sharpe echoes the Black Cultural Zone’s desire to place the murals within the context of the movement for racial justice. “It’s not just about murals, but about everything that is happening and has led up to it and where it’s going from there,” Sharpe says.

Objects can tell powerful stories, which is why conversations about how to preserve and honor items related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the latest uprisings are happening at both the grassroots community level and in national organizations. Coalition building and the centering of Black voices is key: The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of American History and the Anacostia Community Museum recently announced a collective effort to document and preserve “expressions of protest and hope” from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.

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“You never know what stories artifacts and objects will tell,” Fogarty says, pointing to architectural fragments exhibited in OMCA’s All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, testaments to the physical destruction of the Black community. While it’s difficult to know exactly which objects will speak most loudly a half century from now, the mistakes of the past can be illuminating. “We’re very mindful of what the museum was not collecting in 1968,” Fogarty says.

For Tse and Sharpe, whether or not their own work is preserved is less important to them than the messages the murals contain, and how the desire to document those messages illustrates art’s place in social movements.

“We can see from this how art heals, there is an impact, there is a purpose for art,” Tse says. Citing the difficult and long process of going through official channels to create public art, she adds, “I just hope there’s more opportunities for artists to make art like this in very challenging times.”

Carpio agrees: “I feel like this is one way to mark this moment and is also another way of really showing that what artists can contribute to a movement, and how we can envision a different future than what we normally have lived, prior to the pandemic and prior to the uprising.”

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