Temporary murals and street art that appeared in the city of Washington, D.C. fix in time reactions to three momentous events during the summer of 2020: the death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody; the flaring of Covid-19 infections into a full-blown pandemic and a historic vote in the House of Representatives to make D.C the 51st U.S. state.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned a diverse group of six local artists to create 51 murals around themes of black history, social justice and DC statehood in advance of the historic Congressional vote. The murals were funded by MuralsDC, which also commissioned the painting of “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street near the White House. The murals are found at 13 sites spread across all eight wards of a city that once had a black majority and is still segregated by race and socio-economic class. As non-essential businesses closed in response to the pandemic, the surfaces of their boarded store fronts were sometimes used as canvases, with owners commissioning artists to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to counter negative stereotypes of people of color through art. In this photo essay, I present a selection from street art and murals created during the summer of 2020.
Burmese restaurant Thamee’s triptych is dominated by a giant raised and clenched fist, a symbol of black power and resistance in the USA since the 1960s. The restaurant’s website also proclaims its support for racial justice and equity.
George Floyd, whose death set off nationwide and global protests, is framed by his last words, “I can’t breathe”, now part of the lexicon and used by protesters of police brutality across the country and world.
Artwork on the store front of &pizza marks the death of George Floyd and also portrays the power of love, depicted as a knuckleduster on a black power fist to counteract injustice and social violence.
African-American singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who said, “I’ll tell you what freedom means to me… no fear” is portrayed on a window of Cusbah, an Indian restaurant.
Timehri, a dance club, sports colorful abstract art and a sign that has the black power salute, the BLM hashtag and the words “Enough is enough”, underscoring the need to end systemic racism and violence against blacks.
The Park at 14th, a restaurant and dance club, shows the American flag with “Black Lives Matter” written across it, threaded through the fist of a black power salute against the cityscape of Washington, DC. This is foregrounded by images of six African Americans who lost their lives due to violence perpetrated by police and vigilantes.
A haloed black medic and a woman with a rainbow afro, and a stylized version of the D.C. flag along with the words “Black Lives Matter” illustrate the confluence of the summer’s three historic events.
A map of DC in the upscale neighborhood of Georgetown radiates colors of the pride flag, signaling diversity and inclusion. The mural has high visibility on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW and faces the Four Seasons Hotel, which is frequented by foreign dignitaries and wealthy patrons.
This mural in an easily overlooked alley shows the iconic Washington Monument positioned like a candle on top of a multilayered cake decorated with the words “DC 51”. Flags with the phrases “Don’t taze me bro”, “Justice and Peace”, “BLM” and “Las vidas Negras importan” (Black lives Matter in Spanish) are entreaties for fair and just treatment.
This mural depicts the future 51st state as a wedge in the shape of D.C. cut from the middle of a freshly baked pie. The centrality of DC as the capital of the country is contrasted with its residents’ lack of equity in the realm of political rights.
This mural in an alley in a historically black neighborhood in north-east DC shows a black man wearing a face mask that reads “You are loved” while he signs “I-L-Y” (I love you). Printed on his t-shirt are the words “Douglass Commonwealth” (after Frederick Douglass, prominent black abolitionist and author who spent his final years in DC), the name that Mayor Bowser proposed for the 51st state.
Art on a store front articulating different kinds of racism (structural, institutional, interpersonal and internalized) and how they can be overcome through partnership with people of all genders and races.
The Washington Monument circled by American flags on the National Mall, with the words, “Unity”, “Love” and “Change” in the sky above sends a clear message of hope: through unity and love for all Americans, radical positive change is achievable.
A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a boarded-up window facing Black Lives Matter Plaza stresses MLK’s hope for a harmonious “beloved community” characterized by justice and love that is necessary for the survival of individuals and the nation.
Clasped white and black hands titled “You complete me”, a phrase borrowed from the popular movie Jerry Maguire, speak to the need for individuals and communities of different races and ethnicities to recognize how vital they are to each other.
The murals commissioned for D.C. Government’s MuralDC51 project and art contracted by store owners are found across the city. Both social commentary and discourse, the street art communicates protest, ethno-racial pride, gratitude to medical first responders during the pandemic, aspirations for equity in political representation, inter-racial solidarity, and a desire for unity and healing. But the removal of paintings on boarded up storefronts as retail establishments opened up during Phase 2 of the pandemic also underscores the transient nature of this art. While all are open to public viewing, place plays a critical role in determining the viewership of the murals. Those painted on walls of narrow alleys are easy to miss, while those on storefronts and walls of buildings along major thoroughfares are difficult to ignore.