Local artists are working toward positive change, one brush stroke at a time.
As Robbie Lee Harris worked his paintbrush up and down a blank wall in downtown Tucson, the streets around him were eerily quiet for a Thursday night.
The start of the weekend is typically teeming with activity, but, since the COVID-19 crisis hit Southern Arizona, downtown went quiet.
However, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last month sparked outcry across the nation, igniting protests all over the world against police brutality and racism.
Floyd’s death brought unrest to Tucson, making it one of the hundreds of cities calling for change in support of a simple message: Black lives matter. After days of protests, Gov. Doug Ducey enacted a one-week long curfew to curb potential destruction to businesses.
So, on Thursday, June 4, just after 8 p.m., downtown was quiet once again, except for two artists who worked on a mural well into the night. Harris, alongside muralist Joe Pagac, collaborated on a special project to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement in the Old Pueblo.
The mural, located on the side of The Rialto Theater, is one of three pieces Pagac collaborated on with multiple local black artists. Harris designed the piece, then submitted it to Pagac, who helped Harris make the mural a reality.
“The simplicity of it, I just wanted to show some innocence,” he said. “The young lady you see blowing out the dandelion is making a wish for everything that’s in the back. The lone tear drop that’s coming out of her eye is just how badly she wants this to be real.”
But Harris’ mural isn’t the only one that’s a part of the project. Pagac also teamed up with Tucson artists Adia Jamille and To-Ree-Nee Wolf. Both debuted their murals this month at the Mercado San Agustin Annex, a shopping center west of downtown off Congress Street.
Jamille, a local artist and doula who mostly creates textile pieces but dabbles in many art forms, wants her piece to bring more to the movement with a simple statement: Black lives matter when they are alive.
Scattered all over the piece are images that might appear random, but all represent the same idea.
“For me as a Black person, seeing all these deaths and seeing these videos and these images, it’s very traumatizing,” Jamille said. “I just want to focus on the pride, the life, the living part of Black lives mattering.”
Outcry against police brutality is nothing new. There have been many before Floyd, like Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland and others across the country. However, Floyd’s death started some of the most widespread protests the world has seen in recent history, bringing to light a decades-old cry to dismantle systemic racism.
“We have now, with the help of social media, seen what’s been going on with Black people. This is absolutely nothing new,” local muralist To-Ree-Nee Wolf said. “I think it’s an important moment to witness and to be a part of.”
Though it’s been decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Wolf said she’s seen firsthand how far society has come, but also how far it needs to go.
“I lived through the 1969 riots. I was a little girl when that was happening and that felt like the end of the world,” Wolf said. “… I knew that, according to the dominant culture, my life was held as less-than.”
Her piece, not far from Jamille’s at the MSA Annex, shows Black figures alongside white stars over a blue background. It’s almost patriotic. However, Wolf said, it represents something this country has yet to embody.
“I always said that the American dream has to be dreamed larger. It has to be dreamed larger,” Wolf said. “People of color are not going anywhere. We are part of the fabric, the very beginning, of this nation.”
In the age of social media, movements like Black Lives Matter have been able to take hold of cities all over the world. But, as time goes on, Jamille said she doesn’t want to see the movement fall by the wayside as fast as it called for action.
“I just think that people don’t realize how pervasive racism is. It’s not just magically going to disappear,” she said. “I think we are in the same place that we’ve always been. We just have more cameras, we just have more presence. I think in order for it to change, people really have to get honest about what changes they need to make personally.”
The murals will be on display for the next few weeks, but, even once they’re gone, the artists said they want the message to live on and enact meaningful change.
“This is for us. This is not about me, this is not about one single person,” Harris said. “This is all of us, Black Lives Matter is all of us. This community is all of us. So, let’s fix it.”