Black Lives Persist

“During the pandemic I have been very careful and cautious about not being in public places and especially indoor spaces. However, the opportunity to co-facilitate the creation of a mural to empower and heal the community took precedence over my fear of contracting the coronavirus. It felt good to share my experiences as a black man and hear the stories and experiences of my fellow community living in Iowa. This event safely brought the community together to continue the process of self healing through the transformation power of art. This mural will be a visually and meaningful community reminder that Black Lives Persist.” 

–Donte Hayes, June 30, 2020

An 8'x 8' mural on plywood created at the African American Museum of Iowa on July 27, 2020, in a participatory art project led by two Eastern Iowa artists, Donté Hayes and Savannah Simmons.

On Saturday, June 27, 2020, the African American Museum of Iowa (AAMI) opened its doors to the public for an open house art event, “Unwavering: In Defense of Black Lives.” The AAMI was motivated by recent events to create a safe space for community members to gather together to make art with other people or by themselves as a form of expression and healing. Visitors were invited to help paint an 8′ x 8′ mural, or they could gather materials and find a quiet spot in the room to work on smaller, individual pieces of art. Using acrylic paints, paint markers, stencils, paper, board, and cardboard, people made yard signs, protest posters, and personal tributes to friends and family members.

Two Eastern Iowa artists, Savannah Simmons (below left) and Donté Hayes (below right), created the mural “Black Lives Persist.” Both artists view their work as a form of activism. The finished mural will be included in the AAMI’s next exhibit, “Unwavering: 21st Century Activism in Iowa,” which opens in September 2020.

Savannah Simmons (left) and Donté Hayes (right) designed and led the mural project “Black Lives Persist.”

Thanks to Public Space One (PS1), an Iowa City arts organization, there were many excellent stencils available for people to use as they saw fit. The spirit of generosity showed by PS1 contributed greatly to the overall success of this event, as the stencils were very popular! Fortuitously, Donté Hayes had previously served on the Board of Directors for PS1 while pursuing his MFA Degree in Art at the University of Iowa, which made this collaboration seamless. When organizations like the AAMI and PS1 collaborate with each other to provide quality programs, it is clear that everyone wins.

Like many instituions in Iowa, the AAMI has been closed to the public since March because of COVID-19. This year’s Juneteenth celebration was entirely virtual, and many other programs had to be cancelled or postponed. Since the AAMI was already planning to reopen to the public in July, they decided to hold this special event on site because it would not have been possible to create art using virtual platforms. Hosting this event in real life was important to the AAMI, but they recognized that they would have to limit the number of participants and require everyone to wear masks. Therefore, the event was held in a spacious event hall and the number of people allowed to enter at one time was limited to 20 so people could be together while also keeping physically distant from other groups.

People who showed up on Saturday clearly had the intention that they would be using art materials to express themselves, myself included. I was an event organizer as well as a participant. As an artist and doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Iowa, I am interested in the relationship between an artistic practice and activism. At some point in the afternoon, I decided to make my own work of art on sheet of plywood (photo below of the work in progress). The piece incorporates 5 stencils with 5 shades of blue, an open access stencil project that was created by Seitu Jones that pays tribute to George Floyd.

One question returns to my mind now as I reflect on the experience: How do we as artists know when our creative practices have been converted into meaningful social action? Organizing this event with the AAMI was beneficial to me as it relates directly to my current inquiry as a scholar in the humanities. Participating in the event was transformational, as Donté mentioned in his opening quote, because creating time to make work and sharing stories brings new insights and promotes healing.

Link to the project:

For some community members who attended, the event “Creating Art In Defense of Black Lives” provided an opportunity to grieve and pay tribute to a deceased relative. Making art allowed them to retell their own stories, to articulate how their own life has been forever altered by anti-black racism and acts of police violence. Deeply personal narratives were shared with friends and family. Listening to these narratives was a natural extension of the art making process. We create the artwork first, we tell our stories second.

For others who attended the event, the artistic process allowed them to express and juxtapose intense emotions such as strength, rage, and fear. One poignant example (below) uses a direct command, a stencil of a pig, and a device of layering messages — one written in black and one written in red lettering.

The yard sign reads: “DON’T LET [pig]’s TELL/TAKE MY STORY/ LIFE”.
This work of art was created by a young black man, and the urgency of his message to the world could not be more clear.