Protest in the form of art

Local artist's work resurfaces amid killings, triggering past feelings. Today, she decides to reclaim her work, create work 'to be a service to the world.'

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Editor's note: The images and descriptions expressed in this story address issues of violence, racism and trauma.

PITTSFIELD — On May 27, Merudjina Normil, 22, turned off her social media and went for a walk in the woods to clear her head and escape the present chaos. She had been inundated with news about the recent killings of black folks like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery.

She found a sense of calm among the fresh air and the trees, even when she temporarily got lost. But when she emerged that evening she found herself confronting images with painful roots from her past. Art she had created as a teenager, aligned with themes of the newly rejuvenated Black Lives Matters movement, had resurfaced on social media, and became collectively shared and "Liked" hundreds of times across various feeds, by friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. It was her mother who briefly mentioned to her seeing the posts, but Normil could initially only guess which images were being shared. She logged onto Facebook to see what was happening.

One of the predominant images shared and gaining responses was a mixed-media painting of a juvenile black boy wearing an aqua blue T-shirt, arms up with hands folded behind the back of his head, eyes closed, standing in the middle of a sketch of a city sidewalk. Two menacing red bullseyes are painted onto his body, one over his heart, one in the middle of his forehead.

"So amazing," "So powerful," apologies and requests to purchase art were among the immediate responses posted by predominantly white people.

In the instant, Normil comprehended what was happening; she logged right back out of her account.

"I needed some space," she said.

After talking with some of her family members, several of whom were her models for her artwork, and hearing their support, she crawled into bed, turned off the lights, and attempted to sleep.

Coming of age during a time of fear

The summer Normil began her senior year at Pittsfield High School was the year Michael Brown was killed.

On Aug. 9, 2014, Brown, an unarmed, college-bound black 18-year-old was shot multiple times by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, during a confrontation stemming from a possible theft of some cigarillos from a package store in Ferguson, Mo. It spurred a series of local and national protests and outrage that still resonates and rages today.

In Pittsfield that summer, there were also a number of shootings and disturbances, including an August daytime shooting involving two teenagers, prompting an increased police presence throughout the city's downtown, and increased fear particularly among black youth and their families that they might be unjustly targeted.

Normil, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, watched that fear permeate her neighborhood and household.

"My brother used to deliver pizzas and he would get pulled over all the time," she said. "My mom gave my brother the talk all the time. Stay away from police officers. I was terrified."

At the time she created her art, Normil says, "I was 17. I was scared and frustrated and crying all the time in school."

In the hallways and even classrooms there were kids and adults alike who would "bald-face spew racist rhetoric," she said.

In her Advanced Placement classes, Normil said, she was one of two or three other black students. They felt singled out every time there was a discussion around black literature, history or characters, she said.

"There was so much pressure to defend my existence in a room full of white people," Normil said. And she said she and other black students felt like they had no allies to stand up for them.

But there was one AP class where Normil found an outlet for her grief, fear and anger: art.

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That year, she made case studies out of generations of protest art, and produced a series of work for her AP Art Portfolio that blended portraits with words and other images exploring themes of black identity that she, her siblings, young family members and friends were facing. She said her teacher, Lisa Ostellino, and another teacher, Colleen Quinn, who recently re-shared Normil's work, were opening and encouraging of her artistic expressions.

Among the other images Normil created in her series is one depicting a younger black boy, his face and shoulders framed by a light gray hoodie. He looks right at you, his face at once gentle and deeply questioning. He's holding up a sign with hand-painted red lettering that reads, "Will I Be Another #?"

A third image includes two panels. On the left, against a black background, is a young black woman, on the right, against a white background is a likeness of Kylie Jenner. Both of their hair is styled in a variation of cornrow braids and they both are drawn with full lips and wearing black shirts. The girl on the left is darker skinned than Jenner's likeness, and she wears a black T-shirt compared with the other woman's more couture-looking blouse. Dialogue written within each of the panels addresses issues of cultural appropriation, like how the look of the girl on the left is considered "ugly" while the one on the right is "beautiful" and "trendy."

The double standards, the racism, the black-body-shaming and prejudice were prominent in her high school experience, Normil said. The effort to support change was not.

"Some people who never spoke out against it then are now re-posting my images," she said.

Reclaiming space

The artist said she doesn't want "tears and apologies" from her audience. She wants people to pursue justice and authentic understanding of what it means to be black in America. Normil says she is now focusing on commissions and collaborations to create black-centered art "to be a service to the world."

She also decided to reclaim her work and its meaning by sharing a written response on social media, regarding black violence. "I know that once something is made, it no longer belongs to me," she begins, addressing the sharing of her teenage work.

"My philosophies on how to portray blackness has changed. Black is beautiful. It is feared. It is rejected, but it is also loved and accepted. Blackness is more than just the daily traumas faced. It is healing. It is resilient. It is sacred," she writes.

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Normil says she no longer wants to see portrayals, real or created, of "bloody or bludgeoned black bodies."

Simultaneously thanking her audience for their interest in her earlier work, she requests that trigger warnings be shared with re-posts, and that black people be given time to heal and rest from the exposure to images and conversations about these national tragedies.

She concludes, "What we need is unity in fighting the structure that is racism, and your rage of injustice. May you be at peace and may you be safe."

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Art as activism

A number of Berkshire County artists are sharing work, from visual art, to poetry to performance, as a form of activism and raising awareness regarding racism and violence against black people. Here are a few other works:

Painting of George Floyd by Ace Amillion (aka Amber MacNeil)

In her words: Ace Amillion spends time researching her subjects and getting a feel for who they are before they paint them. "As an artist — and not just those who make visual art, we're poets and dancers, too — that is the way we feel, the way we are able to solidify our feelings," she said. She describes listening to Floyd's last words, "I can't breathe," as "like a suffering becoming unconscious," as represented in the lettering of his words behind him. She's decided not to sell her painting, but to find a way to deliver it to Floyd's family.

She will next be working on public mural projects depicting Great Barrington-born author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois and the Rev. Samuel Harrison of Pittsfield, who served as chaplain to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War.

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"CAUTIOUS"

A poem by Kyreasia Solomon

With my friends having a blast

But you wouldn't let it last

Taking a long walk down the street

But you want to stop and harass me

Minding my own business living care free

But you want to stop and stare like I'm a different species

Being black is my superpower

However that comes with a weakness

Just as kryptonite is Superman's

Me being black and you being white defeats me

In her words: Solomon is an 18-year-old recent Taconic High School graduate. She wrote this poem reflecting on her experience with police before the recent protests, but shared it recently via social media. She plans to go to either St. Augustine's University or Livingstone College in North Carolina to study photography and psychology.

"To get those words out on paper felt good. For me, writing things down let me lift the weight off of my shoulder. It's time to be heard and this is my way of showing that," she said.

Asked whether she feels more "super" or "defeated" these days she writes, "The only power that they have is the power that you give them ... I feel more super 'cause I'm proving the stereotypes wrong by accomplishing the above and beyond by graduating high school and going to college."

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"Protect Black Men," portrait by Emanuel Brown, Pittsfield High School Class of 2020 graduate

In his words: Emanuel Brown plans on going to Wittenberg University in Ohio, with a goal of having a career behind a camera. He enjoys using film and digital tools.

He says of his portrait, "Protect Black Men": "As a black artist, the most important thing I can do is represent my people. In the world we live in today, so often we see white people telling the stories of black people for them, allowing them to paint the picture however they please. With this photo, I wanted to portray my own ideas, based on my own first-hand experiences and feelings, so that I can be a voice for my community. ... When the oppressed are able to fight side by side with their allies, change will come. I chose to have the man and woman in these roles with the thought of recent events involving George Floyd, fresh in my head, but the roles can be and often are reversed. I represented allies with a black woman, but our allies can come from anywhere. We are in a war. It is the people versus the system. As a black man fighting for my right to life, I want this picture to call to all allies to protect us and fight with us so we can stay on our two feet, to continue to move forward. I am, and always will be, unapologetically black with my art. I will continue to use my photos as influence and representation as we fight this fight."


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