Nowhere is Cincinnati's art scene more obviously displayed than on its walls, and in the case of the Black Lives Matter! mural, on its streets.
Painted during the height of the George Floyd protests, the work has now stood for a year, a constant reminder of what the protests meant and what is still left to achieve. It’s also a reminder of the obstacles artists who are Black have had to hurdle to be seen.
For several local artists invited to paint an individual letter of the emphatic message in front of City Hall, the BLM mural was not a one-time effort. These artists have continued to express their perspective through other murals and art forms, hoping that the art and its message endures.
Michael Coppage doesn’t actually like working on murals. He prefers painting and other lens-based artwork. But he admits that, due to their scale and public nature, murals are inherently assertive and impactful.
“They become confrontational by default, but I think that those work beautifully because people aren't expecting them,” Coppage said. “You don't really get that at an art gallery.”
Since 2018, Coppage's work has focused on his observations about living in America. He said that from his Chicago childhood to his Cincinnati adulthood, he hasn’t seen any progress in the treatment of Black people.
“The only change has been that we've now been able to record it to show people that this isn't a conspiracy theory, this isn't us exaggerating, our collective anger isn't baseless,” Coppage said.
Coppage is best known for his Black Box, a multi-faceted art piece highlighting the way language can further racism. In his February 2021 TED Talk spearheading the project, he said that if people are seen as lesser, they will be treated as lesser. The use of the word “black” in phrases like "black sheep" may contribute to this negative perception.
He hopes his Black Box murals can spur internal change in viewers' minds. Unlike in-person galleries, he says, viewers can’t debate with him about the validity of his message. There is no one to direct their arguments toward.
“Instead, they have those thoughts, but there's just a proxy, there's no one there to go back and forth with so they have to have this internal dialogue,” he said. “You have to resolve that in yourself, and you can choose to ignore it and walk away with the same belief system, or you can choose to expand what's possible to believe.”
Black history with color
Cedric Michael Cox sees this moment in history for Cincinnati's Black artists like he sees his art: inherently vibrant. Cox says institutions are now providing more opportunity, leaning toward art that is “unforgivably Black.”
“There was a time where if you were African American and an artist and you approached a gallery, they will tell you, ‘Maybe Black History Month,’” Cox said.
Cox describes his art as an “inner combustion” of his spirit, unapologetically colorful and happy.
That's a conscious choice: He only agrees to commissions that allow him to blend his values, experience and identity into the artwork. Such was the case with the BLM mural, to which he incorporated his abstract style and bright hues in the letter “E” in “matter.” It’s also the case with his current project at the former Manse Hotel.
The Manse Hotel is famous for being listed in the Green Book, which included places where Black people could safely stay during the segregation era. Cox's "mural of the future" at the former lodging place, to be completed by the end of summer, is intended to celebrate Black achievements like that of Horace Sudduth, the hotel’s founder and Cincinnati's first Black realtor.
While Cox has seen a positive shift in the art realm over the last 12 months, he said the city's overall social climate has not changed as much. While there will always be a need to call out racial injustice, he said a greater statement would be to provide equity, jobs and opportunity for Cincinnati's Black population.
“That's when you really are getting the perspective, our perspective, naturally," Cox said. "It's a natural flow not just, it's our day, it's our month, it's our mural.”
Making art to connect cultures
Kate Tepe used her letter of the BLM mural – the first “T in ‘matter – to amplify Black female voices and remind City Hall to advocate for all community members. The letter, a message, reads, “Silence will not protect you,” a phrase taken from an essay by contemporary poet Audrey Lorde.
Tepe believes Cincinnati has made progress but adds that it’s crucial to avoid complacency in a still inequitable system.
“I think we're in a really weird space right now where I feel like it's harder and harder and harder to feel optimistic,” she said. "I think that these arts projects can help with that optimism and reenergize people's desire to continue to fight for change and for better conditions for all of us.”
Tepe spent her childhood connecting to her adoptive white parents through artistic expression. Tepe says she believes that art can be that bridge for everyone, if they are also given space to express themselves. Her work, which ranges from painting to sculpture to game design, attempts to create that conduit.
“I think art taps into our souls in a way that kind of crosses all the different sort of cultural buckets that we have for each other,” Tepe said. “There's a lot of unspoken social codes that change depending upon your environment. If I can take that unseen thing and make it tangible, put it on the table, make it equitable, the goal is that people can then use that as a tool to connect and build intimacy.”
Dai Williams loved the performance aspect of the BLM mural– the work was being watched as it was being created. Williams worked alongside Asha White on the second “T” in “matter.”
“It was really cool to be in that environment of people that look like you, who have the same mission and are fighting for something through art,” Williams said.
Williams has seen a gradual rise in opportunity for artists who are Black throughout their life, but the past year, they said, took it to a new level.
“I think more people were jumping,” Williams said. “But it's like, obviously we've still been here this whole time, we didn’t appear overnight. We've all been working really hard to get our names out there.”
Art is in Williams' blood, having been raised by artists. Since joining ArtWorks at 16, Williams has been working on murals like "OTR on the Rise" for the organization. Last summer, the artist’s first solo mural, “How to Protect a Ghost,” was completed in Coral Alley. It reflects the feeling of being stuck in a bubble, Williams said.
Whether it’s the BLM mural or their ghosts, Williams wants people who see the works to feel inclusivity. And while the art may not always include obvious race-related themes, Black identity cannot help but be there.
“There's no way of separating it, like it's part of who I am and I know that it still comes out and reflects in my work," Williams said. "Because it's me, it's Black art.”