Artists Create Portraits of Justice After Dunn and Zimmerman Verdicts

In the face of unjust rulings, artists step in to fill the void left by the courts.

By Carla Murphy Feb 19, 2014

In the wake of last weekend’s Jordan Davis verdict–a Pyrrhic victory for many–two things are happening again. People are asking if U.S. courtrooms are effective sites of justice, and they’re feeling like their beliefs about the tragic fates of young, black and brown bodies in the criminal justice system have been reaffirmed. When a legal system offers imperfect justice or none at all, how do you "get right" after? Stepping into that void are artists whose missions aren’t simply to make art for art’s sake. Their battleground is popular culture not the courtroom and their trophies are hearts and minds. 

"Having not been a judge or a witness who could’ve helped communicate what [Michael] Dunn did, my art is the only way I can give Jordan Davis justice," says Colorado Springs-based visual artist Dareece Walker.

Davis’s likeness now joins 10 others in Walker’s newest work: "The Massacre of the Innocents." The triptych, three 40-by-46 inches panels of 11 portraits, is a 21st century interpretation of the biblical infanticide ordered under King Herod and captured by 17th century painter, Peter Paul Rubens. Walker’s innocents are young men and women including Amadou Diallo and Rekia Boyd, all senselessly killed by racism, he says, within his short lifetime. Walker is 24.

"These shootings happen more than people know," says Walker, who last year created a piece linking Trayvon Martin’s death with Emmett Till’s. "It’s the only way I can make these stories last longer than just one conversation."

And long after the media trucks have left the courthouse parking lots, continuing the conversation among all Americans is what these mission-driven artists are after.

Following a standing-room-only December premiere and a successful run at the National Black Theater in Harlem, "Facing Our Truth: Short Plays on Trayvon, Race & Privilege," is heading to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in March. The series of 10-minute plays is the brainchild of Keith Josef Adkins, artistic director of The New Black Fest. He says theater is an ideal space for gathering everyone into a room to work through the emotions that surface during cultural flash points like the Dunn and Zimmerman trials. For "Facing our Truth" he purposely recruited a multiracial group of playwrights.

"We’re all representing different experiences but we’re there to talk about one thing affecting all of us," Adkins says. "It is not just the black burden but everyone’s responsibility to navigate through racism and privilege."

When the Dunn verdict came down, he admits that he didn’t want to know the details. "I felt like I already knew the details: [there’s] an institutional license to open fire on young black and brown youth."

For Adkins, that perception didn’t start with the murder of Martin. It began in his own family."My grandmother’s oldest brother was killed by the Klan," he says.

As the family story goes, a young black man in a Georgia town reportedly stole molasses from the local store. The young man, hearing that he was being blamed, ran into the next county–the one in which Adkins’s family lived.

"They started going through the black community, going into people’s homes looking for this man," Adkins says. "And my great-uncle refused to let them in. They came back later that night with the Klan, dragged him out of his house and hung him. All over some molasses. For me, there’s this ongoing narrative about the expendability and the hunting and profiling of young black male bodies."

From his Seattle-area home, artist Kenneth Nation, who is white, arrives at Adkins’ conclusion in his own personal and present-day way. Nation’s nephew is half black.

"I saw my nephew through Trayvon Martin," he says, "and it made me think of him and his hardships."

Using Photoshop, Nation created a likeness of Martin that is intimate, detailed, soft and intentionally human. He wanted to focus on the loss of youth and optimism instead of dominant media images depicting Martin as a thug or, showing only his violent end. He also had another mission: He hoped his image would interrupt the heated rhetoric he was hearing on both sides of the Martin-Zimmerman ordeal.

Given the demographic changes underway in the country, Nation believes too much is at stake to not reconcile racial differences. "So many cultures are coming into the country," Nation says. "I don’t think most [white] people realize how many immigrants have moved into the country and I don’t think we’re prepared or grown enough to accept all of this," he says, pointing out that despite improvements racial animosity with African-Americans is still a problem."I think a lot of people don’t want to accept the change."

Whether folks are pushed or walk willingly to the table, artist-activist Ebony Golden says these difficult arts-mediated conversations around race and difference are happening all over the country.

Golden wrote and directed three of the plays in Adkins’ "Facing Our Truth." When the Dunn verdict came down, she was in the middle of a weekend-long strategy session with artists and activists in the Midtown Arts Center in Jackson, Miss. "I was pissed off. I said, ‘Not this shit again,’" she says, referring the jury’s inability to rule on the lone charge for Jordan Davis’s murder."The arts have always been the meeting place for folks to figure out how to work together under difficult conditions," says Golden who also heads Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, which helps communities like Jackson use the arts to encourage progressive policy change. But she cautions, working for the liberation of all people also means seeking out these conversations and accepting that, "you will be curated out of other spaces because of your ethics."

Verdicts like Zimmerman’s and Dunn’s only intensify her focus. "If the arts can’t bring different folks together to explore hard topics and begin the process of coming up with solutions," she says, "then we’re in trouble."