On June 4, Mayor Marty Walsh pledged to make Boston one of the nation's leaders in combating racism. When Kai Grant, the owner and chief curator of Black Market Nubian, read about the mayor's pledge, she, like many other Black Bostonians, felt skeptical. "Boston has a long racist history," Grant says. "Redlining, the building of highways through our communities... there are a lot of things Boston needs to address in order to truly address its racism."
With her husband Chris, Grant runs Black Market, a 1700 square foot gallery-style space in Nubian Square. It began as a pop-up market in 2017 but has bloomed into an important and central artery for arts and culture in Roxbury and surrounding areas. "I woke up on June 15 and thought, 'We need to make a statement. Boston needs to make a statement'," Grant says. "And we wanted to challenge Mayor Marty Walsh to help us make that statement."
Black Lives Matter murals popped up on the roadways of major cities across the country following global protests against police brutality. Grant felt that Boston needed one of its own. "I understood that it needed to be a collaborative effort with local artists that were from not just Roxbury, but Nubian Square," Grant points out. "Investing directly back into our artists in the area was a main priority."
Roxbury-based artists Lee Beard and Paul "Mars" Chapman came on board to lead the execution of the mural, while Chris Grant acted as the lead art engineer. Artist Chanel Thervil also answered the call to lend a helping hand to the mission. "It was great to be on the on the scene to learn," Thervil says. "I'm not a large scale muralist so I was learning from these artists. There were a number of volunteers who showed up who are actually house painters."
The community collaborative effort required lots of planning and strategy. "We had to work with the MBTA and the state," Grant says. "We obviously had to get in contact with and work with the city of Boston." Grant also coordinated to hire local photographers, videographers and youth to document the mural-making process.
By Sunday, Black Lives Matter and a pan-African flag completed a 500-foot course down Washington Street. While community reaction to the mural has been positive, there has been some criticism. Beyazmin Jimenez, a Dorchester resident, is grateful the mural is now in Nubian Square. But she's seen negativity on social media about the usefulness of street art. "Public spaces are important and what we do with them is important," Jimenez says. "It's a powerful reclamation of public space and it's necessary to dismantle white supremacy."
"Art changes attitudes, and that is a complement to the forward movement of our society. It's an affirmation of Black presence in a neighborhood that has a long legacy of Black excellence, Black activism, Black creativity and is now currently being gentrified."Chanel Thervil
Jimenez's observation of backlash isn't singular. There have been criticisms about what some call the "performative" aspect of the murals. Black Lives Matter DC called the Black Lives Matter mural, spearheaded by Mayor Muriel Bowser, in front of the White House a “performative distraction from real policy changes.” Communities in Palo Alto raised similar concerns when muralists painted Black Lives Matter in front of Palo Alto's city hall. While the murals may be a nice visual gesture, they're not the same as policy change.
But changing systems of inequity isn't the responsibility of the individual artist, Thervil points out. A community-driven art project isn't going to end systemic inequity in Boston by itself. "Art changes attitudes, and that is a complement to the forward movement of our society," she says. "It's an affirmation of Black presence in a neighborhood that has a long legacy of Black excellence, Black activism, Black creativity and is now currently being gentrified."
Art often happens in tandem with revolution, say Grant and Thervil "We, as residents and business owners that are from Roxbury, are making a statement with this mural that we aren't going anywhere," Grant says.
The street mural is part of a larger arts initiative Grant is working on with other local artists. "The Nubian Square Public Art Initiative is aimed at revitalizing our square and to bring back the economy. We took the community through a series of meetings and came up with seven points in the initiatives that we started to implement."
The Nubian Square Public Arts Initiative kicked off last summer with the implementation of an Afro-Indigenous Healing Festival that featured 13 live artists, an outdoor art gallery and more. A GoFundMe to help fund the initiative was launched on Wednesday morning. "For us, the Public Arts Initiative is about being able to hire Black artists and empower them inside of their own community to place make," Grant says.
The conversation about the pertinence of space making for communities of color is one that's much larger than just the street mural. Recently, statues and monuments have come under fire, specifically the Emancipation Memorial which the Boston Art Commission unanimously voted to remove last week. Though there are critics who say statements like the street mural don't mean much in light of systemic racism, there is significant evidence to prove otherwise.
"There's a reason why we're championing to take these monuments down," says Thervil. "There's a reason why we're fighting to change how our city looks. It's important and necessary for Black people to visually take up space." For Thervil, Grant and the other artists involved with the project, the street mural is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reclaiming public spaces.
"This mural isn't going to end systemic racism or gentrification in our neighborhoods," says Grant. "But art is just one tool that we're going to need in our fight against white supremacy."