The Art of Protest
Portland has always been a city that speaks up. Through words. Actions. And through art. For almost 150 continuous days, Portland has protested against the police killings of innocent Black men, women, and children.
And amongst these protests, Portland’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists are creating—interpretive, honorary, subversive, moving—art. Stories are being told of generations of oppression alongside the recent police killings and the decades that preceded 2020s murders. On boarded-up buildings, city streets, and march signs, art is protesting, too.
In their words, a few of these Portland artists share the stories behind the creation of their new works this year. Salomée Souag is the organizer and artist behind the Expression Against Oppression murals. Kali Grey Huebner is the organizer behind the Together We Grow murals. Artist Intisar Abioto created original works supported by the Nat Turner Project and Forest for the Trees. Artist Christine Miller curated a show at Blackfish Gallery and developed a mural at Woonwinkel exploring color and the Black experience.
Though much of their recent work is on public display because of current events, this art is not just about now. It is drawn from history. And it will be a legacy.
SALOMÉE SOUAG, Expression Against Oppression Organizer & Artist
Expression Against Oppression (EAO) is part of the creative vigil in downtown. Most of our lives, we have to fit in for others and not be bold or loud; now is the time to undo that. Black Lives Matter means Black creativity matters and Black futures matter. As creatives, it's our job to make that message heard everywhere.
EAO officially began in July, after I worked on a mural in Pioneer Place without approval. As an artist, I felt called to add an important message to the revolution. These murals are their own form of protest. They are the stories and experiences of Black and Brown creatives in Portland. They reflect suffering and trauma, but also the celebration of being a person of color in America and the beauty, strength, and magic within that.
Since I've had the opportunity to work on a variety of mural projects in the community, I recognized and saw the importance, purpose, and ability to create during this time, and wanted to provide the same outlet to BIPOC artists to express freely and tell their stories. At first, the plan was to fund one artist out of pocket, but when I started sharing the idea, I was given more funds than expected, soon raising $6,000 for BIPOC artists to receive stipends and have supply costs covered to paint and be a part of EAO. I took over a side of Pioneer Place and prepped the entire west-facing wall.
The artists I worked with had full creative freedom. The canvases are opportunities for new creativity to flourish and to remind the city that private property development and gentrification has stopped many opportunities for the artistic community, and specifically BIPOC artists, to have a space to thrive. Street art and free public art are the future, an antithesis and response to what has been privatized and coveted by an elite group of control and curation for so long in the art world. So this was about creating a community to share conversations and stories, and be a part of the movement and revolution together.
It’s also a reminder that we shouldn’t undermine street artists and their visions. To provoke a reaction is all that’s needed right now—to make others question their actions or thoughts. We can make them see they are the problem but also the solution. The system wants us to be oppressed and complacent. With art, we fight against that oppression. We create a culture that pushes for equality, justice, love, and liberation for Black and Brown people. All protests are essential and worthy, and artistic expression is part of the cycle. I think our job as artists and creatives is to make it impossible for people to move on. We must make them see that they must take action and be the change themselves.
Salomée on Instagram @chromae.s
KALI GREY HUEBNER, Together We Grow Organizer
Art reflects society: our beliefs, our struggles, our differences. Art inspires people. It initiates important conversations. For the last five months, my studio has worked pro bono on a community mural project around COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. The community mural project, later titled “Together We Grow,” started shortly after Governor Brown announced Portland’s Shelter in Place mandate in March. To date, it has contributed to 30 outdoor murals across downtown Portland, made by 23 different artists.
As local businesses downtown began boarding up their storefronts, I wanted to facilitate and curate a mural initiative to uplift spirits of the local community and bring color and beauty back to our streets. Many creatives were eager to get out of their homes and to donate their time, supplies, and talents to this cause. The businesses I approached were hesitant and uncertain how long boards would remain up. But once it became clear the quarantine was not going to end soon, we began our first murals in May, located near Ankeny Alley in Old Town. I was then plugged into a network of many other small businesses interested in providing their storefronts as canvases and received a grant stipend from Neighbors West-Northwest to support artwork for downtown Portland.
On May 25, George Floyd’s death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. And Portland saw more businesses boarding up their storefronts. To support Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) artists and communities, I continued the community mural project but shifted the conversation to Black Lives Matter. From this, artists created murals in their own styles: a graffiti lettering memorial for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by Jesse Hazelip, a mosaic pop-art style of female Black beauty by Latoya Lovely, references to Black Boy Joy by Bernadette Little, and African-inspired textile designs by Jamaali Roberts. We also collaborated with local nonprofit Global Works Community Fund and their courageous and intelligent group of teenagers, who formulated concepts for Salomée Souag to transform into a mural design—with pieces reflecting abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, demanding justice for migrant workers, and urging that All Black Lives Matter.
Working with small business owners and incredible artists from diverse backgrounds to share their interpretation of society’s current issues has been inspiring.
INTISAR ABIOTO, Artist
Black Lives Matter is one present tense aspect of long-standing Black-led resistance/creative movements for Black liberation and life. I’ve been making work about Black living and dreaming for 20 years. In this, I understand that my work is a continuance of Black revelatory and resistance practices that have been ongoing before my time and during it.
Art can give us a vision into what’s possible—not just of what is or what might be based on the terms of reality that appear before us, but of what really should be. That’s what my art has always been about. The creative process for me is just listening to my ideas, following excitement, seeing where meaning is. Then, it’s sustaining the bravery to act on my ideas, inclinations, and inspirations.
My mural, BabeSis, Aunts Tenn, Ms. W, Miss Choomby … & In Our company on SW Grand and Ash, was made with support from Forest for the Trees and a community of artists who contributed their time and skills to bringing the mural together. Photographs are designed to look like a scrapbook, with images of Black women, girls, and femmes in Portland—people who I know and look up to. My mom and sister are pictured, as are my aunts in Memphis. It’s about us. I also included words from Samiya Bashir’s poem Field Theories and Nikky Finney’s poem Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica. Both epigraphs speak of regard—the regard we/I must have for Black femmes. The closing epigraph, “What is a thing of beauty / if not us?” sends the viewer back to the girls, women, and femmes at the mural’s center. There’s a circular reading to this that I love, and in my mind, the mural never ends. Like mirrors arranged to reflect one another, the images go on and on.
I also created a window installation on NW 8th and Flanders at C3:Initiative, the site of the original Black community in Portland, supported by the Nat Turner Project. The window collage installation features images of Black Portlanders that I’ve photographed the past seven years through The Black Portlanders Project, along with images from the Rutherford Historic Black Newspapers of Portland from the Rutherford Family Collection at Portland State University. The project speaks to the foundation and the expansion of Black communities in Portland through layered collaged images of Black Portlanders, past and present.
Black Lives Matter exists as a response to the purposeful and entrenched destruction and devaluation of Black life by white supremacy in America and globally. My work researches, celebrates, regards, and pays tribute to Black life. In any endeavor, we must continually align ourselves with the spirit of our true purpose. I am continually turning to Black people, Black culture, Black life. Protest is one powerful expression of our collective movement for Black life—and art can serve that aim—but in itself, it’s not the ultimate point. Black life is. We must look to Black people, Black voices, Black life for the meaning of our movement.
In Portland—with its history and current presence of white supremacy—I hope these works are reminders of the true power and purpose in loving Black life here and elsewhere. That is my role not only as an artist, but also in my existence within the cultural legacy of Black life and creativity.
Intisar on Instagram @intisarabioto
Christine Miller, Artist
I aspire to be unapologetic in my practice and accept that it can make some uncomfortable.
My work centers around racial imagery, products, and histories while simultaneously reframing my own cultural identity. I’ve tried to explore this work in different collectives and have been denied because people felt fatigued by the idea of supporting an artist who explores anti-Black imagery. But if I’m not exploring it, as someone who has experienced it as a dark-skinned woman, who else is?
I also use art and design to recreate my own feelings toward what the definition of Black is. It’s a lot of processing to do the work, and I’ve been working on this project since college. People are now waking up about these deeply ingrained issues, and so many others are finding their voices. It’s refreshing and beautiful to see, but I’ve been here and sitting in this world, so there’s recently been some validation in my life. This time period has also made me feel more emboldened to show my work—the work I’ve had that people weren’t ready for.
This year, I curated a show at Blackfish Gallery around the intentional definitions of the word Black—a word that today is still defined as something negative in the dictionary.
Black [blak]: without any moral quality or goodness; evil; wicked
Black [blak]: soiled or stained with dirt
Black [blak]: deliberately harmful; inexcusable
There was an air until very recently that saying “Black” was unpalatable. Now, it’s starting to be neutralized in a sense, and people are taking strength in their identity. My mural at Woonwinkel also reflects this, this optimistic and lived-experience definition of the word. My Black is bright and sunny, hopeful and strong. It’s pink and yellow, yellow and pink.
One of my pieces at Blackfish is based on the book The Negro a Beast; or, In the Image of God by Charles Carroll. It’s a disgusting book, creating an argument for why Black people are inferior, a polarity of beast and god, where Black is beast and white is god. This is the history some people might not look up. But you put it on a t-shirt, brand it, make it look interesting, and people will actually pay attention.
It’s why art is the visual representation of the revolution.
Look, I’m still skeptical about things being Black-washed—that people and companies will use Black Lives Matter as a trend to remain relevant. What people need to understand is this is about our lives mattering as human beings. So to have counter narratives of “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter” is basically saying Black people matter only in the parameters of being a beast, or in narratives that keep White America comfortable. People want to keep you as a beast in this society. I’m not a beast.
Black people are not beasts.
Christine on Instagram @christinelaurinmiller