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PAINT THE TOWN: Controversy surrounds City Council’s vote to allow ‘Black L!ves Matter’ art installation

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The proposal for the ‘Black L!ves Matter’ sign will erect it vertically in Jervay Park off 3rd Street. Courtesy photo

 

Last month as civil rights protests erupted worldwide, murals also began peppering city streets in the U.S., sending very clear messages, like “Black Lives Matter” and “End Racism Now,” to support citizens of color in their fight against systemic racism.

Washington DC.

Albany, NY.

Topeka, KS.

Sacramento, CA.

Dallas, TX.

Montpelier, VT.

Our state’s very own Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Charlotte have welcomed artists to paint in solidarity of Black Americans and protesters fighting to see equitable changes take place within American institutions and policies. Last month on June 10, UNCW professor Dr. Janna Robertson, local artist and art teacher Grayson Davis and Support the Port’s executive director Cedric Harrison presented a proposal to the City of Wilmington to also paint a mural in front of the 1898 Memorial. (It’s not the first time the trifecta has partnered for racial justice; they helped produce “Wilmington NC in Color” coloring books.)

After waiting a few weeks, their “Black L!ves Matter” proposal still hadn’t been added to the agenda. So they started a petition; to date it has received upward of 4,000 signatures. On Friday, July 10, they met with Councilman Kevin Spears and Wilmington Deputy City Manager Thomas Moton to adjust the location of the mural, originally slated to be painted on 3rd Street. All parties concluded the installation would take place at Jervay Park Memorial Garden, just north of the 1898 Memorial.

The proposal now will be heard and voted on at the July 21 council meeting.

“I’ll take the blame for it taking so long to be added to the agenda,” Councilman Spears admits. “I was confused as to how things become resolutions . . . [but] I proceeded with getting it added since I had been so vocal [and supportive] about the mural in the beginning.”

Councilman Spears believes the mural will send a message of unity for the Black community, especially since “Black Lives Matter” represents the equitable treatment of safety, protection and advancement for Black lives across the U.S. He sees the value in highlighting its impact as a movement.

“We’ve received plenty of negative emails about it,” Spears says. “People are too quick to put a negative attribute on something they don’t want to understand. I think the existence of the group is important, as it relates to issues of law enforcement and Black people.”

Some activists have spoken out against murals as mere performative gestures or acts of tokenism. Dr. Robertson views it as an inclusive opportunity to help residents bond. She’s witnessed it firsthand by overseeing the Forest of DREAMS mural off Fanning Street, which involved 600 community members. She’s also completed murals at Elderhaus, DC Virgo and New Beginnings Church—all community-based and interactive. By including the area’s neighbors in the mural creation, everyone takes a sense of pride in the art, its message, and they become watchdogs, in essence, to help prevent vandalization.

“Our goal is to create something beautiful that showcases the artistic ability of our local Black artists,” Dr. Robertson specifies, as priority will be given for people of color to participate.

Robertson, Davis and Harrison will put out an artist proposal request should the project be greenlit at Tuesday’s meeting. A selection committee will hash through submissions to narrow down who creates each block in “BLACK L!VES MATTER.” They are requesting 4-foot-by-8-foot aluminum signs to represent each letter, which then will be painted by an individual or group of artist volunteers. Lead designer Davis (artist name Haji P., who also teaches at GLOW Academy) will present the project to City Council. It calls for the conversion of North Front Street, between Parsley and North 4th streets, as well as a portion of the already closed Cowan Street, to become a pedestrian plaza for the permitted public art display. Davis also will present examples of mural designs, explain how they will choose artists and procure funds, plus share feedback they have received from the community at large.

“Several groups are in support of the project,” according to Dr. Robertson, “including Support the Port, lowercase leaders, New Hanover County NAACP, Black Lives Matter Wilmington, DREAMS of Wilmington, Wilmington Ten Foundation for Social Justice, Suit Up Wilmington, Turn NC Blue, Lowes Hardware, Foxes Boxes, GLOW Academy, and individuals from UNCW, CFCC and . . . Councilperson Kevin Spears and Representative Deborah Butler.”

Moving the signage from city streets to vertical representation at the entrance of downtown where MLK ends actually will make the art installation more visible. “This hidden gem of a park has a long grassy field, lined with flowers and Crepe Myrtles, and can be seen from drivers entering the city, located at the beginning of the Freedom Walk,” Dr. Robertson says.

“In all honesty, if the proposal had solely been to paint ‘BLACK L!VES MATTER’ on 3rd Street or in front of the courthouse, it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you know where,” Councilman Spears says. “The initial idea has transformed into something greater and adds something new to our city in a place that will mean a lot to our Black citizens and lovers of our Black citizens, and it will also add meaning to lovers of art and artistic expression. I think there is a chance of seeing this thing happen.”

Yet, the virtual agenda briefing held Monday may paint a different picture, so to speak. WECT’s report shows it turned heated when councilmen Charlie Rivenbark and Spears exchanged words about supporting the mural, with Rivenbark calling its messaging “racist.” Specifically, he thought it would offend white children, and suggested “All Lives Matter” as an alternative.

“We are still asking for the mural to say ‘Black L!ves Matter’ at this time,” Dr. Robertson confirms. “The compromise was ‘Black Lives Do Matter,’ if they insisted, or if they still refuse then ‘End Racism in ILM.’ It’s baffling why they wouldn’t agree to it, especially since Mayor Saffo signed the NC Mayor’s Statement Against the Murder of George Floyd, which agrees to allowing peaceful protests and honoring the life of George Floyd and those who have been affected by systemic racism. The mural is an extension of that.”

WATCH CITY COUNCIL’S BRIEFING HERE

Councilman Clifford Barnett spoke in support of the proposal, while council members Kevin O’Grady and Neil Anderson have not made it clear whether they support the cause. According to Port City Daily, Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes has her own set of issues with it, questioning whether it’s truly an art installation because of its controversial message and whether taxpayer dollars should be used toward it. However, not one dollar of tax money is funding the project. Should council approve it, Lighthouse Films has offered to sponsor the entire art installation with a $6,000 donation for needed supplies. They also will record footage of the community installation.

“It will be approximately $4,000 for the signs and another $2,000 to go to artists for their paint supplies,” Dr. Robertson explains.

The project will require handy people who have the equipment and experience to dig holes, cut signposts and secure them in concrete, before fastening the letter blocks to erect the signs. “We will need the community!” Dr. Robertson assures. Should the mural get approved, there are also plans to unveil the project with a community celebration, wherein families bring their children to add their handprints to the back of each sign. “That way everyone can leave their mark to show Wilmington that we all love our Black residents and believe they all matter. If the council votes this project down, they’re essentially stating, ‘We don’t care about our Black residents.'”

STORY UPDATE: City Council delayed the vote for two weeks at the July 21 meeting. They will decide on August 4 whether to move forward with the art installation. Watch the video of the meeting here.

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