The Politics of Protest Art
On the ground during protests in Downtown Columbus, artists were a major part of the social unrest that took place this year.
Several dozen artists adorned the boarded-up windows in Downtown and the Short North this summer and beyond with pieces in support of Black Lives Matter, while others depicted the Black experience or called for resistance, change, hope, and peace.
While some pieces were requested by business owners themselves, many of first murals were created as a part of #ArtUnitesCbus, a project by the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, which first employed artists to create murals on plywood boards at the Ohio Theatre and GCAC, and later other businesses.
Currently, a curated array of the murals are on display at temporary exhibitions around the city, including Easton and the Short North. As they make their rounds, it will be interesting to see if the boards continue to express the urgent need for resistance and change as they were originally intended.
As for the artists, participating in Columbus’ protests in this way has been a much-needed opportunity.
“I’m really thankful to be engaged in this time. Before the protests broke out, we had not been working since March,” said Lisa McLymont, an artist among those tapped to create murals Downtown. “I was feeling really unuseful. I just realized how much I need not just to work, but just to feel connected to people.”
She said sitting at home due to the pandemic, and in meetings where people were carrying on with business-as-usual got her out to the protests. She helped paint one of the first murals, Even the Darkest Night Will End and the Sun Will Rise, at the Ohio Theatre.
“It’s been an interesting way to get involved and change my perspective as an artist, or at least the way I put myself into my work has been changed,” she said. “I’m very thankful that I have a talent I can share in this time, that people can find resonance with.”
Artist Ariel Peguero said the beginning of the stay-at-home order was a welcomed break, but around the time stress started to set in, the protests started happening.
He was energized, but before he began painting, he took a step back, set aside his ego, and thought about what would be the most effective message.
“How can this actually be effective from a 7-year-old seeing this to the person running this business right here?” he said. “It has to be something that’s going to catch somebody’s eye and help them connect or even just escape from what they’re seeing in front of them.”
McLymont says she is not a muralist — she’s a self-taught portraitist and graphic designer who only recently begun creating in the medium.
“I wasn’t looking to do murals. I actually said no to quite a bit of stuff because it felt performance art to me,” she said, demonstrating how pretentious those interactions can be. “I’ve grown to accept it and accept the conversation.”
Peguero comes from a similar background and says his work typically isn’t as hands-on as creating murals. He said it wasn’t until the protest that all of a sudden people were requesting his work.
“It’s weird for me because it’s not like I haven’t been trying to paint murals. It’s not like I haven’t been trying to get into these spaces. It’s really ironic,” he said. “I’d like to think it’s because my work has evolved and it’s now ready to be shown, but it doesn’t really feel that way a lot of the time.”
There is a question of if businesses and organizations are reaching out to these artists simply due to the moment, rather than in support of a genuine movement.
“It is still challenging, because I’m sitting across the table or on a phone call thinking and wondering about who’s doing the inviting, and would they have done that if protests hadn’t happened,” said McLymont. “So I’m really trying to capitalize on the opportunity to make change and the door that’s being opened.”
However that sudden interest, genuine or not, may not be seen by every artist of color.
There are the usual suspects — McLymont points out other artists like April Sunami, Hakim Callwood, and Bryan Moss — but there could be more, she said.
“There is room for more voices. I’m busier than I need to be. But I don’t know how to hand that off until we meet those people,” said McLymont. For her part, she has begun working with projects such as Deliver Black Dreams, a local initiative that includes mentorship of young people, particularly in the arts, among its goals.
“I want all Black and Brown people; I want more women, I want more trans and LGBTQ people, disabilities…seniors? Everybody has a really strong voice that could be shared,” she said.
She hopes through these projects to help get Black and Brown folks more organized around doing this kind of work.
“I feel like we as Black and Brown artists should be pushing to put ourselves and our art in the spaces that welcome all of us,” said McLymont. “Ask the question, ‘Am I here because I’m a Black person…and you want to feel good about paying someone to put art in this space to say you’re connected to this, or are you really invested in connecting and making change?'”
“Because that is the ask, or the demand right now,” she said.
Though it’s clear many people enjoyed the murals and appreciated artists providing protest-inspired words and images, that doesn’t paint the complete picture. While largely peaceful protesters faced violent interactions with police, some artists witnessed injustices from where they stood as well.
McLymont says at the height of the protests, for whatever reason — an inability to pay due to the pandemic, an undervaluing of artists’ work — many artists were lowballed or simply not paid at all.
“My experience Downtown, the ones that did work for free were looking to get involved and they were happy to give their work away,” she said. “And then some of them were so young they didn’t know that they should even ask for that. They just liked the opportunity to get this work.”
“Some did it for free, others did it for less than $300, some did it for double that, a few others did it for three times that,” she said.
“On their own supplies? I had to use my own supplies on a few of them,” said Peguero.
Owners were waving down artists randomly off the street to paint murals for them, especially in the Short North, McLymont said. Ideally, when that work was done businesses should have handed the artist a check.
But not every artist, especially newer artists, know to even ask for that.
McLymont and Peguero agreed that some sort of workshop was needed to teach newer artists about the business side of creating murals, or an artists’ union to ensure artists weren’t be taken advantage of. Some of that already exists but could be done on a larger scale.
“It is on us as a community, an arts community, to help each other do that, and that’s Black and white,” said McLymont.
Peguero points out that some of the murals popped up out of nowhere Downtown and in the Short North, as if owners weren’t as intentional in their support or simply didn’t want to be put in a box of “racist business that doesn’t care.”
He said those businesses would request a more watered-down version of his work.
“It was like, I’d tell them what I wanted to really say, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, well we want to just be empathetic and peaceful and show that we understand,'” said Peguero.
“They want the lighthearted stuff that looks pretty,” said McLymont. “You don’t want to turn anybody off because it’s ‘too political,’ but here we are in a political time and you’re looking at my face, who’s feeling very political.”
At the time, there were probably a lot of people covering the boards just because they didn’t want to look at “shantytown” and they weren’t necessarily hearing the message of the protesters, said McLymont.
Owners who are buying the time of artists may not necessarily want to make a big political statement. They want to acknowledge racial injustice but don’t want to lose business by ruffling feathers.
“I do get that part, but if they are going to consciously reach out to a Black artist, they need to be asked about what their commitment is beyond this mural,” she said.
McLymont said she makes a bigger ask of businesses that seem hesitant.
“I will make a more direct ask or say I won’t do that because I believe in this time, you need to be as direct as possible,” she said. “So, if you’re looking for a pretty image, I would recommend that you find another artist. Because this is a time that we should all be able to speak up in this way.”
Whether it’s hiring more people of color, investing more in minority-owned businesses, or not killing Black people, there’s a much larger conversation that needs to happen that art simply can’t fix.
“What is the next thing? Are you really going to make a conscious effort to rebuild things in a way that welcomes Black and Brown bodies and not just putting them at the table to feel good about seeing their faces?” said McLymont.
“It’s going to take a lot,” said Peguero.
“More than what murals can do,” said McLymont.