Local black artists gathered in Civic Center Park on June 19 to paint murals, talk about their works, and unify Denver through artistic expression.
Titled the Black Love Mural Festival, the event was designed to help with cleanup efforts in the park while celebrating Juneteenth and promoting solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement; the pieces will remain up through July 8.
“I want the artists to be able to educate people about what they are going through at this moment, why this is a form of self-expression, and why they decided to go with their particular image,” says Robert Gray, who organized the event.
Gray is the creative director of Rob the Art Museum, a marketing collective that uses art to organize community events. He collaborated with Annie Phillips of IRL art, which also organizes multimedia art exhibitions around Denver. After coming out to Civic Center Park on Tuesday, June 2, to engage in cleanup efforts, Gray decided to reach out to local artists and organize the mural event.
The city approved his plan on Sunday, June 14, and he worked with artists and others to build everything in two days. Over thirty murals are painted on temporary rectangular wooden panels set up around light posts and monuments in the park.
Gray hopes that this can be an annual event. “We want to connect with artists and build a community,” he says. “This is something that we want to do again and again. We want to always give black artists an opportunity to express themselves.”
The artists are getting some money from the city, but there is also a GoFundMe account that has been set up to support them, says Gray.
Eryk Fisher, co-founder and director of operations at Rob the Art Museum, says that the exhibition gives people who don’t feel comfortable speaking out in protests or bigger events a chance to make a statement. “We can create an opportunity for black artists to come out and amplify their voices and express themselves. Not everyone is a protestor or a rioter, but they still have a voice and want to be heard. Ultimately, we want to give them a larger platform to speak on," he says.
Eighteen-year-old Hermela Hailu, one of the student organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest put on by DSST Byers at Cheesman Park on June 16, was given a painting space after Gray met her handing out fliers in Civic Center Park. Her mural is of a black woman with flowing hair painted on a yellow background. It says “Free Mine” in big letters at the top and bottom.
“I hope the people that walk by see a free black woman, but also see that she longs for freedom for all her people,” Hailu says. “That’s why it says ‘Free Mine’ — to free her mind of micro-aggressions and systemic racism. To be free.”
Hailu says her interest in art started two years ago, when she began drawing at home. She moved to Denver from Ethiopia at age eight, graduated from DSST Byers this May, and plans to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the fall.
Local African-American artist Ki’erre Dawkins invited community members to help him finish his mural by dipping their fingers in white paint and imprinting them in the stars and stripes of the American flag on his piece. “It’s just to kind of show that we make up the United States, so it’s up to us to do our part — to make sure there are equal opportunities for everybody,” he says. “Your fingerprint represents your oath to take the time to learn about people and where they come from.”
The 29-year-old Dawkins, who graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in fine arts, says that this is his first mural. He does a lot of collage work, and is excited to be able to display his art on a larger scale. After moving to Denver two years ago, he opened up a Southern-style barbecue food truck called Saucy’s Southern. “Cooking is what pays the bills, but I’m most passionate about fine arts — that’s my first love,” he says. “As busy as I get, I still find time to do this type of stuff.”
Dawkins’s piece is red, white and blue, with the outlines of stars in the top left corner and white stripes in the bottom right to be filled with community fingerprints. There is a cut-up magazine page in the center with President Trump’s face on it that has the words “Perfect Storm.” He incorporates images of black athletes, Tupac, LeBron James and Martin Luther King Jr.
He points to fallen chess pieces painted in the bottom left corner and explains that this is his representation of life in the United States. “America plays a game of chess, especially in the legal system,” he says. “You could be a fallen pawn down there.”
Fisher hopes the murals will invoke a strong reaction over the next two weeks, even as riots and protests die down. “We want to ensure that people know that the message we’re fighting for still stands,” he says.
Through gloomy rain clouds, Fisher notes that this is a time to celebrate.
“It’s Juneteenth, and even with the weather being the way it is, we want the community to get involved in what we’re doing,” he says. “Ki’erre’s piece asks the community to make a vow to continue this fight that we’re on until we get the things that we’re demanding, not asking. This is only the beginning.”
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