Though COVID-19 has shuttered events across town, it hasn’t stopped protesters from convening daily at City Hall steps since June 1. UNCW’s Art and Arts History Department will add volume to the movement in a virtual art exhibit, slated to open July 16. “Protest Signs: Projected Voices of the Community” will showcase posters and signage with various messages calling for justice, peace, equality and equity.
“This will be our second virtual exhibition after ‘Art in the Age of Social Distancing’ that is currently on display,” according to Aaron Wilcox, chair of UNCW’s Department of Art and Art History.
Planned with the help of Fidias Reyes, director of arts engagement for UNCW’s Office of the Arts, and Billy-Gray Weatherly, Cultural Arts Building Gallery director, virtual exhibits are becoming the norm at the university—at least until the pandemic lessens its threat on society. “Creating a virtual gallery was the best solution to reach people from a distance,” Weatherly says.
The exhibit will feature rallying calls of folks demanding a restructure in power that more equitably serves Black Americans and abolishes systemic racism and authoritative brutality they have endured for more than 400 years. Wilmington’s call to action has been no less profound, especially since the energy being culled by protesters are mostly young voices—a new generation demanding change, continuing the civil rights movement into the 21st century. Led by the lowercase leaders, their permit to protest extends through June 6, 2021.”I’m really encouraged by the young people who have led this movement,” Reyes says. “I’m hopeful we’re headed toward change. Young people are leaning into politicians and policies, and demanding change and I think people are finally listening.”
The imagery and words of their signs are as much artistic as they are practical. Their stark pleas hit hard when it comes to remedying the toxic imbalance of prejudices, injustices and unfair stereotypes that exist beyond human interaction and into the pulse of our political institutions.
“The signs challenge preconceived ideas and communicate strong feelings and emotions,” Wilcox says.
“They make us think, they make us uncomfortable—everything that good arts is supposed to do,” Reyes adds.
Reyes points to an image she saw a few weeks ago of a little girl holding a sign that breaks down the meaning of Black Lives Matter. “It’s such a powerful message from this little girl, who’s asking all of us to make her life matter . . . I think this image really answers why this movement is so important.”
The show is juried by Dr. Travis Williams, a faculty member in the sociology department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He will approve around 40 pieces; the deadline to enter is July 6. “So far no two are alike,” Weatherly says. As part of “Protest Signs” July 16 opening, Dr. Williams will give a lecture to complement the exhibit. The professor specializes in the sociology of race and social conflict and is currently teaching a class called “Social Movements and Conflict” at VCU.
“When we bring in jurors and people for artist talks, we have an idea what they might say, but it is really up to them,” Wilcox clarifies. “We invite them here for the unique perspective they have to offer and want them to have the flexibility to talk about what they think is best. I have some ideas about what the larger issues he might address will be, but that will be up to him.”
The signs protesters are projecting throughout the nation represent cumulative emotions—fear, anger, desperation, exhaustion, pain, trauma, anguish, and most importantly, hope. It’s a reminder “we the people” do in fact run the country. In the last few weeks, since protests began, our nation is seeing immediate change, like Minneapolis dismantling its police department; Confederate statues coming down, even in the South; budget reform of police funds to help other needed areas, like social workers and community development. The continual hope is only mandated by a shift in societal and governmental paradigms.
“Change is long overdue and I believe systematic injustices can only be remedied through systematic changes,” Wilcox says. While he admits an art show may not be the final push, it is, like any good exhibit, a representation of the larger conversations we’re having worldwide.
“I am a Black Latina, my husband is African American and we’re raising an 11-year-old boy,” Reyes tells. “We have ‘those’ conversations with our son. We have to let him see the news, discuss why there’s so much anger around what happened to George Floyd, and be candid about what this means for him as a child and as a Black man. So this moment has had a big impact on me and my family. Unfortunately, my family and I have these conversations often.”
The idea of “Protest Signs” is to continue those discussions beyond family dining tables and classrooms, no matter how hard, uncomfortable and displeasing they are to endure. Change comes from challenging the status quo, and the pop culture and arts surrounding it—music, art, dance, literature—represents such shifts.
“Art galleries are places to engage people by appealing to emotional and rational responses to those ideas,” Wilcox says. “The art critic Robert Hughes said, ‘Art never changed anything.’ I have thought about that a lot over the years. It is not the one thing that changes anything, but nothing can change without it.”
“Art allows us to tap into our empathetic imagination,” Reyes adds. “We all need to practice that right now. An empathetic imagination requires us to simply imagine someone else’s experience. We place ourselves in that moment, we feel that pain, we feel that anger. The arts, visual and performing arts, give us the opportunity to have that experience and when we allow ourselves to have that experience we connect with others, we understand others, we build up our own humanity and feel a sense of responsibility in helping others build up their own.”