Towns turn to public art to address social justice issues

Towns turn to public art to address social justice issues


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A Triangle muralist said she’s glad she’s finally able to help tell stories that, until now, have been ignored.

 

What You Need To Know

The N.C. Arts Council said many towns have funded works of art by and depicting people of color since last year’s protests

Chapel Hill’s downtown now features murals, window paintings and banners by artists of color

One Black muralist said she’s learning more about Triangle history through her work

 

Apex-based artist Kiara Sanders got her first major art commission this summer when Chapel Hill officials hired her to paint a mural depicting several local Black civic leaders, including state Sen. Valerie Foushee and Howard Lee, the first Black mayor in the South. A lifelong Triangle resident, Sanders said she’s learning about local historic figures she never knew existed.

“As more people come to the Triangle, it’s going to change a lot, and I feel like we shouldn’t lose that grassroots feel where these are the people that helped us,” she said. “It’s part of keeping that knowledge and history and education going, and also, keeping that energy.”

N.C. Arts Council Deputy Director Tamara Brothers said a number of cities in North Carolina have commissioned public artworks by artists of color or dealing with themes of social justice. As an example, she cited the Black Lives Matter mural painted in Tryon Plaza in Charlotte. She said investing in this artwork, in murals or some other medium, can play a role in healing the scars left by generations of discrimination.

“It shows that we are listening and acknowledging those felt and lived experiences of people of color,” she said. “It shows that we are taking an overall vested interest in their healing as well.”

Chapel Hill officials have commissioned several works in this vein over the past year. Banners commemorating a 1964 civil rights protest in front of the old post office now hang from that building’s pillars.

Susan Brown, executive director of Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, said the old post office, now Peace and Justice Plaza, will continue to display banners commemorating various justice issues from now on. The side of a building near the end of Franklin Street is adorned with a vinyl mural by a Latinx artist. And along the boundary between Chapel Hill and Carrboro is a new mural honoring Chapel Hill musician Elizabeth Cotten.

A mural along Franklin Street in Chapel Hill done by an artist of color. Chapel Hill officials said they commissioned several such works after last year’s George Floyd protests.

Sanders, who is Black, said her feelings on the explosion of social justice art projects is a little mixed given they came as a response to protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Still, she said she’s glad to be part of those projects. She said she hopes the people who see her work remember it and are able to take something away from it.

“I think everybody has a piece of art that they’ve seen at some point in their life, and then years can pass, and you can still revisit either the whole composition or a part of that that stuck with you,” she said. “At least that’s what I would hope for for any kind of public art project that I’m a part of.”



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