Kenda Zellner-Smith felt numb. With everything that had been going down in her south Minneapolis neighborhood following George Floyd’s killing while in the custody of Minneapolis police, she needed time to be able to express herself and heal. Instead, she had to go to work.
“I felt so down that morning and not ready to be in my day and in that predominantly white space,” said Zellner-Smith, 23, who works at a nursing home.
On the drive to work, something caught her eye. It was graffiti on a boarded-up business that expressed, with an expletive, the anger she felt toward the police. “Another board said A.C.A.B. [All Cops Are Bastards]. We were heard this time,” she said.
That same day, she learned that the plywood boards covering businesses’ windows were starting to be removed. She ducked into her office and quickly launched @savetheboards_mpls, an Instagram account focused on preserving the art and messages that had been left. With the help of friends and her dad’s truck, she’s since collected 30 to 35 boards.
University Rebuild, a grassroots group of unemployed theater artists and volunteers who handed out 2,000 plywood boards to secure businesses damaged after Floyd’s death, have offered to help her preservation efforts.
Zellner-Smith and others sharing the preservation mission are committed to keeping the boards in the communities where they were made, and keeping them out of museums. The Walker, Mia, Weisman Art Museum, Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Museum of American Art confirmed to the Star Tribune that they are not collecting the murals.
Ranging from fast graffiti to highly detailed murals with Floyd’s signature portrait, the boards have become de facto canvases for people expressing pain and grief, and protest art that crystallizes this historical moment.
In a recent Zoom discussion with 10 Black arts leaders in the Twin Cities organized by Robyne Robinson, board chair at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul and a public art consultant, artist Alex Smith took issue with the urge to “Minnesota-ify the movement.” He urged people not to focus on just the prettier boards, but to also pay attention to the ones with raw, reactive messages scrawled over them.
“It’s like going out the next day and sweeping up all the broken glass,” he said. “Like, maybe we need to see some of that broken glass so we can remember what happened the night before.”
Robinson pointed out the plywood protest art’s connections to AfriCobra, the collective founded in the 1960s that helped define the Black arts movement outside of the mainstream art world.
Supporting the effort
Members of University Rebuild, who are not Black themselves, envision their role as supporting community.
“As stewards to art, it’s our responsibility that it’s used equitably, and that means listening to BIPOC people and Black people in particular about what they want,” said University Rebuild organizer Daisuke Kawachi. The organization is offering to temporarily house boards at their storage facility.
Wolfpack Promotionals, a full-service promotional printing business in north Minneapolis, hasn’t made a decision about what to do with boards covering their windows that have “Big Floyd” painted over them. They were made by artists Jack Reynolds, Kyle Alexander and Tony Cineus, who swung by and asked if they could paint.
“We said sure, figuring it would only be up for a little bit,” said co-owner Katie Brown. “We like so much what they did that we’re having a hard time taking them down.”
The boards are too big to store inside Wolfpack, but they don’t want to take them out of the North Side, and are continuing conversations with community about what to do.
“We’re keeping it up for probably through the middle or end of this month at the minimum,” said Brown.
St. Paul-based Leesa Kelly, who owns the BIPOC-focused community engagement organization We Live, is working with the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery on a show of select boards, slated for 2021. (The museum will reopen Aug. 4.)
“It is time for us to focus on telling the story ourselves,” said Kelly. “Too many times has Black history been whitewashed. I didn’t want that to happen this time especially when we have a Black-owned and -operated museum.”
While some are thinking about the immediate future, others are dreaming long-term.
Robinson wonders if the murals could be collected city by city and toured nationally for a period of time, like the AIDS quilt. She thinks that could be accompanied by discussion from arts groups and historians, with a portion given to the Smithsonian and the rest returned to the community.
Kawachi said that community members have suggested a public installation of the murals on Lake Street that references photographer Wing Young Huie’s “Lake Street U.S.A.” project, hanging them in schools or putting them on view in neighborhood community centers.
“A lot of people are still in the grieving process and processing,” said Kelly. “As far as a permanent solution [for the plywood mural art], I think we are about a year off.”