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Centering African-American voices in downtown Greensboro murals

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The finished project at Elsewhere on June 11

*Editor's note: The owner of the business that the Blues Society mural is going up on will be paying artists with supplies for the project, not supplies and a stipend. The misunderstanding has been corrected in the online version of the story. 

Art has filled the boarded-up windows of downtown Greensboro brick-and-mortars turning much of Elm Street into an immersive public art exhibit. Some businesses have made a socially-conscious decision to give a platform to those most affected by police brutality, and have reserved their storefronts exclusively for murals by African-American artists.

Atiba Berkley, president of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, said that a Blues Society business affiliate (who asked to not be named) had recently made headlines for the wrong reasons. Allegedly, Stokes County Militia members co-opted the storefront’s logo in a photo-op during the unrest on May 31 and June 1. Berkley said the owner of the shop (where that picture was taken) wanted to make his intentions and beliefs clear: he did not endorse or condone white supremacy.

“We just wanted the community-at-large to be aware that this business was unaffiliated with white supremacy, and the white supremacist movement,” Berkley said. “They co-opted a space without asking, and when it was documented by journalists, I think the shop became collateral damage.”

Berkley said the owner of the shop contacted him and asked how he could help rectify the situation. Since the owner expressed interest in having a mural painted on his storefront, Berkley said they decided to reserve that space for “black and brown people to have their voices seen and heard.”

“We decided to do things in a different context than what some other folks are doing,” Berkley explained. “The Blues Society was interested in doing that, and we decided that we would pick some blues images to give artists another perspective from which to celebrate and center blackness in the conversation.”

Berkley said the space for the murals includes approximately four 8-foot by 10-foot areas, and that the subject of the murals would be primarily African-American blues musicians. Berkley said the artists would be able to choose from those images and would have full creative control. Berkley said that the owner of the business would be leaving it up for an extra two weeks after it is completed and is providing supplies for each artist collaborating on the mural.

In addition, Berkley said the Blues Society would preserve the images after they are taken down for a future visual art display.

“We are a nonprofit that deals with black arts and culture—not just blues music,” Berkley said. “All the cultures and disciplines overlap, so we want to do our part to pay respects and make sure that conversation is understood as well. When you minimize black art to a good lyric or guitar lick, you are missing a lot of the point of the expression of art.”

Berkley also hopes this mural can help tackle conversations about race and representation in the arts.

“The blues audience in America, as far as consumers are concerned, are predominately white,” Berkley said. “It’s a very unique situation for [blues] being a black art form, where the number one consumer currently is white. That happens with most black art forms: rock ‘n’ roll— black art form, white audience. Hip-hop/rap—black art form, white audience—It’s a common theme, which allows some room for different conversations.”

Downtown Greensboro staple, Elsewhere Museum, came up with its own mural project and reserved its space exclusively for African-American artists as well—with A&T professor, co-owner of The Artist Bloc, and ArtsGreensboro grant manager Darlene McClinton spearheading the effort.

Matthew Giddings, Elsewhere’s new executive director and Thea Cohen, Elsewhere fellow, worked with a team of six others to come up with a list of African-American mural artists they knew of in Greensboro. Through a “word-of-mouth fundraising campaign,” Giddings said that Elsewhere was able to raise money to be able to pay up to nine artists at least $200 each, and ArtsGreensboro was able to donate primer. Giddings said this mural would be a collaborative effort with the themes of Elsewhere’s vision for “building collaborative futures” tied into “Black Lives Matter: past, present and future.”

“Having this be black-led and predominantly black mural artists is what needs to be seen,” Giddings said. “I think this is an opportunity to lead with doing the right things.”

Some of the lead artists on the team include McClinton, Jamin Guinyard—aka Jay Squids, Karena Graves—aka Kidd, A&T professor Xavier Carrington, Lady Q—aka Quadasia Prescod, and Phillip Marsh, the art administrator of Rockers Print Shop.

McClinton said she envisions a “bright, bold and vivid mural that tells a story of pride, dignity, and liberation from beginning, middle to end.”

“I think it is important for black voices to be the center of this project because we are the ones that are living through the pain and living through this experience,” she explained. “Nobody can really tell your story the way you tell your story. This is a time for creatives to speak visually and to be heard on all platforms. Creating art is therapeutic and creative expression can foster healing and mental well-being.”

Marsh is an artist involved with the mural at Elsewhere, and he is a collaborating artist on the Blues Society mural. He said supporting African-American creatives is both necessary and important now more than ever.

“This is our moment,” Marsh said. “We need our voices heard, because at this moment —in a time of change, we need to have the participation that we haven’t had for over 400 years. There is a new generation putting in a new voice. Along with that voice, we are saying to powerful people that we have a voice, too. No matter how insignificant you may feel, you are in the community—you have a voice, too. That is what art is about, and that is what this project is about, and it is an honor to be a part of it.”

Marsh said he feels that some of the artwork he has seen is tone-deaf, considering the seriousness of the statements that most of the murals are making.

“The artwork has been sanitized—as you can see, [with] daffodils and rainbows and flowers,” he said. “This isn’t what this moment is about—this moment is about black pain. We just saw one of our brothers’ lives snuffed out prematurely— this is not a good time. To think that people are so disconnected from our community, that they don’t even recognize pain—to where they feel a creative message that they want to say is something positive at this moment—shows the tone-deafness of people in our community. That is really why this project is important, and all the projects that I have been a part of have been important. I am making sure to make sure that the message is being relayed in this moment. There would be no Civil Rights Museum if there wasn’t dangerous work done to make that moment happen. Same as now, we have a transformative worldwide event going on. When we look back on this moment next month, next year, 10 years from now—does Greensboro really want to be known for putting up daffodils?”

As a 45-year-old black man who has had numerous negative experiences with police officers and has “done three years in prison for things that other people would get a slap on the wrist with,” Marsh thinks those are the kinds of messages that are important. To him, those are the messages that should be shared right now.

Marsh added that the subject matter of black art could be painful because of the harsh reality of systemic racism, which may not be palatable to white people.

“We live in a lot of chaos,” Marsh said. “When people are so uncomfortable, it is because they don’t know how to operate in chaos. But black people, we live in chaos every day, so this is nothing to us. Even in that perspective, we need to do a better job understanding that sometimes, it is best to be a leader, and sometimes it is best to be a follower. And in this moment, all of society needs to understand how to be a follower so that they can truly hear what black people are saying, instead of listening to respond to tell us why we aren’t feeling what we are feeling.”

Wanna see?

-The Blues Society mural can be found across from the ballpark, next to Acropolis, located at 416 N. Eugene St. The mural at Elsewhere, located at 606 S. Elm St., should be completed by Friday. To donate to Elsewhere’s artist fund for the mural, visit the website.

-The Piedmont Blues Preservation Society is teaming up with the North Carolina Folk Festival on Sept. 11-13, for its 34th annual Blues Festival. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Blues Society had to delay its annual fundraiser. Donations can be sent via CashApp: $PiedmontBlues or PayPal, sales@piedmontblues.org, or by mail to P.O. Box 9737 Greensboro, N.C., 27429. The Blues Society is seeking new members, sign up online.

Katie Murawski is the editor-in-chief of YES! Weekly. Her alter egos include The Grimberlyn Reaper, skater/public relations board chair for Greensboro Roller Derby, and Roy Fahrenheit, drag entertainer and self-proclaimed King of Glamp.

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