In a painting by the British artist Joy Labinjo, a white family sits on a sofa watching Black protesters on TV. One of the people on the screen wears a blue face mask while another is holding a placard with “STOP KILLING US” written on it in bold black letters. Red paint drips like blood from the word “KILLING”. The artwork’s references to the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 are hard to miss – a cultural moment that disrupted the world and brought on the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement at the height of the pandemic.
Two years on from the time depicted in Joy’s painting, the demonstrations are still etched into our collective memory, and the aftereffects can still be seen across the globe. But, in decades to come, these events will not be so fresh in our minds.
Memories fade but they also calcify, losing their texture and their nuances, which is when the work of photographers and artists such as Joy will aid people in their understanding of what really went on and the complex emotions surrounding it.
Joy’s painting is called “Terrible, isn’t it?” – a (most likely) intentionally ambiguous choice to emphasise the conflicting views many white spectators had about the protests that took place that year.
You had Canadian prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying the demonstrations were “a time to learn,”, President Donald Trump calling the protesters “anarchists” and “thugs” on Twitter, and all shades of grey in between.
Bolanle Tajudeen, founder of Black Blossoms, an educational platform that aims to decolonise art history, says works like this will be used to inform society and spark discussions later down the line. “When I look at an artwork, especially one that has political undertones, the first thing I consider is the year that it was made, then I go onto Google and see what was happening,” she says. As an example, Bolanle points to a piece by the British artist and academic Sonia Boyce from 1985 titled Missionary Position II. The artwork illustrates two people: one is in prayer, and the other is reaching their hands out to the other. At the bottom of the piece, the artist writes, “they said keep politics out of religion and religion out of politics”.
The title of Missionary Position II alone draws on the historical role of British missionaries in colonising Africa and the Caribbean. Simultaneously, the painting seems to signify a disowning of how colonisation has impinged on Black culture.
“If you look at the political climate [in the UK] at that time, there was the Broadwater Water Farm Protest and the Brixton Riots,” Bolanle says. “In the eighties, young Black people were rejecting Western ideals because of the racism they were facing. Black people were being killed and bullied on the roads in Britain.”
In terms of Black Lives Matter protests, the piece that encapsulates the 2020 demonstrations for many people is an image by Harlem-based artist Mark Clennon of protestors standing in front of Trump Tower in New York five days after George Floyd’s murder – a picture Time magazine dedicated an entire article to.
“I think that image did a great job of giving us a summary of everything that was happening in New York and larger America at the time,” Mark says, adding that he was shooting for himself rather than with the intention of his images being widely disseminated in the way this one was. At the centre of Mark’s image is a Black man in a durag with a raised fist as the Trump Towers sign hovers above his head.
Whether intentional or not, the contemporary use of a durag and a raised fist as a sign of solidarity dates back to the Black Power movement of the 1960s, adding extra weight and political signifiers to an already potent photograph.
That said, the protester in the background wearing surgical gloves (most likely due to Covid), the reference to Trump, and the presence of white allies solidly placed the photograph in 2020. “Every part of that image tells a part of the story. That’s why it resonated with many people,” Mark adds. While Mark believes in the capabilities of his image to provide an understanding of that time in history, he agrees that multiple artworks and imagery by a myriad of people, including himself, will offer a fuller picture when decades pass.
“As many photos, grainy videos, anything. I think everything helps,” he says, mentioning that the photograph that stood out to him was one he took 20 minutes before the Trump shot, of Black healthcare workers standing in solidarity outside their workplace with PPE on. “It showed me this humanity – the two-sided battle that Black people are fighting.”
This idea of a variety of artworks creating a fuller picture of a time or place is what fuelled New York-based artist Neil Hamamoto to start Free Film, a project and series of books based on his travels around the US. Since 2019, Neil has been journeying across America in an airstream caravan-turned-darkroom handing out rolls of film to people in cities with a theme as a prompt to help them direct their focus.
He then develops them before venturing onto his next destination. “It’s like sending thousands of photographers on an assignment to capture the same thing,” he says. In 2020, the initiative empowered those responding to the protests, which he believes showed the rest of the world a multifaceted perspective of the period. “By comparing imagery across them all, that is where you start to find more truth about what’s out there.”
Photojournalist Dee Dwyer, whose practice focuses on documenting human life, agrees. “I don’t think one photo can tell a full story,” she says, adding that there are many perspectives to consider when trying to understand protests in particular. “You have the police perspective, the antagonist perspective, the hero’s perspective.” Dee believes the images taken during the 2020 protests will be examined in the same way images of Black movements in the past are:
“I think we’re going to look back at them in the same way we looked at the documentation from the sixties of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Shirley Chisholm, and Nelson Mandela. It will hold that same weight and have that same impact.”
Lessons from history
While Dee believes racism will sadly still be a prevalent, pressing issue in the future, she says art will provide people (especially Black people) with clues on what needs to be done next time there is a protest. “Instead of starting from the beginning, we’ll be like, ‘okay, that’s what they did. Let’s figure out a way to do it better,’” she says. “It’s like a study guide.”
Helina Metaferia, an artist and professor of visual art at Brown University, adds that this is how we have looked back at all forms of human behaviour since the start of humankind. “Art has historically been a record of time. From the moment we could use our hands, we were making things,” she says. “I tend to think of artists as visionaries who are not just recording our [current] moment, but what’s possible [in the future].”
But beyond the artist alone, institutions also play an essential role in what we’ll understand of the protests through art.
The statue of slave trader and philanthropist, Edward Colston, was pulled down, defaced, and thrown into a harbour in Bristol during the British George Floyd protests. After the event, a decision was made not to return the controversial effigy to its original plinth, leaving local museum M Shed with the complex task of presenting it in their space. “[Colston] was part of the infrastructure that allowed the slave trade to happen. He was also a philanthropist who gave a huge amount to charity,’ says Shawn Sobers, a university professor at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, who worked on the temporary display of the statue at M Shed.
“Those two facts exist at the same time. You can’t acknowledge the philanthropy side without acknowledging where he also got that money from.” Ultimately, M Shed decided to keep the statue on its side with the graffiti from the protest still visible and placards on show behind it, providing a multifaceted view of both Colston and the protests.
It’s an illustration that there is no absolute, unchanging record of the past. Future generations’ history lessons won’t just include events, but our responses to events – the ones we live through and the ones that we must live with, even when they happened centuries before we were born.
Bolalne also notes that Sonia Boyce’s Missionary Position II was the first piece by a Black female artist to be acquired by the London-based contemporary art museum Tate Modern. “The fact there were so many riots happening was part of the reason that artwork was introduced into the Tate collection at that particular time,” Bolanle says.
Decades on from when Sonia originally made it, it is now considered a part of British history and a visceral reminder of events that took place at the time – much like many of the artworks on the Black Lives Matter protest will one day also be.
And it is through those artworks that the shock, the conflict, the injustice, the solidarity and the humanity of those 2020 days will be conveyed to those who never witnessed it, but who can still learn from it.