In the days after George Floyd was killed in police custody, Kenda Joe Zellner-Smith felt alone.
“I just didn’t feel able to face the world,” she said.
Then one day, on her way to the Minneapolis nursing home where she works in human resources, Zellner-Smith saw street art that changed her perspective.
To see public art decrying Floyd’s death “when I was so down, it felt like someone was listening, and someone heard. And I knew I could get through that day. I’m alive, I’m breathing. I have a voice still and I need to use it,” she said.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Zellner-Smith has felt an acute connection to the city’s recent protests. But soon after she first found solace in the city’s art, Zellner-Smith began seeing pieces she loved — painted on the plywood covering the windows of businesses — vanish. While driving around one day, Zellner-Smith came across people removing the art. They told her they were going to maybe hold an auction for the art, donating the money to Black Lives Matter.
“My heart just sank,” she said. “We need to see this stuff. It shouldn’t be taken down, because we’re still dying.”
Zellner-Smith started an initiative called Save The Boards Minneapolis. She has spent the last few weeks collecting and storing plywood art from all over the city. She uses an Instagram account to garner support and attention. So far, she’s saved around 40 pieces of art.
“I want everyone to be reminded of what happened here, what black people go through, and the uproar of the aftermath,” she said.
Zellner-Smith does not want to see the art created over the last few weeks in Minneapolis destroyed, or even collected by museums.
With so much art throughout history inaccessible to the very communities that created it, Zellner-Smith wanted to make sure her city’s black community would keep the art.
Cameron Downey, a self-described anti-disciplinary artist in Minneapolis, agrees that alternatives to museums have to be considered.
“It should be something that you see without having to want to see it, because that’s such a huge aspect of what’s happening, and what’s happened,” she said. “Nobody chose for us to be here, nobody chose for us to have to mourn like this. But it’s a huge part of who we are as a city and as a people.”
Since putting out her call for assistance, Zellner-Smith has been overwhelmed with the amount of support she has received. One artist is going to help her weatherproof and preserve the boards, and other organizers in the city have reached out about storing and cataloguing the art. She hopes that the art boards will eventually end up in community spaces, like public parks, local businesses and schools throughout the city.
Zellner-Smith started off by storing the collected plywood boards in her garage, but most of them are now being kept in a facility maintained by University Rebuild, an organization run by members of the Minneapolis theater community. University Rebuild has helped local businesses cover their windows with plywood and other materials, and is now in the process of helping them take the coverings down while also creating a photographic catalogue of street art throughout the city.
“We feel that it is important that instead of perpetuating the legacy of museums — which are very complicated and more often than not based on the legacy of colonization and theft — we want to see if there is something new that can be done,” Daisuke Kawachi, one of the co-organizers of University Rebuild, said.
The question of “who the art is for” is, to Zellner-Stewart, the crux of her work. “I knew that once the art disappeared, it could end up in institutions not accessible to us anymore,” she said.
The problematic relationship between museums and local communities goes back hundreds of years. Recently, the British Museum was lambasted for its statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement by critics who believe the museum has yet to contend with its imperialist collection.
In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was enacted, in part, to repatriate human remains or cultural items to federally-recognized tribes from federally funded museums. But according to NAGPRA data documented by the National Park Service, over 14,000 entities of cultural importance to Native American communities have yet to be repatriated.
That’s just an example.
“Most museums in the United States are built on the removal of works from indigenous communities, both in the United States and globally,” Jami Powell, associate curator of Native American art at the Hood Museum and lecturer in the Native American studies department at Dartmouth College, said. “Museums are inherently colonial institutions.”
Powell, a citizen of the Osage Nation, doesn’t think museums are “irredeemable,” though. “Museums can also be spaces of learning, excitement and possibility, particularly for young people,” she said.
This is part of what Aaron Bryant, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, hopes to accomplish. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian has started collecting art from local protests.
“Our museum is really about advocating for the local community,” he said. “All across the country, every community should be preserving their cultural products and celebrating their cultural projects. The things that we create, the things that define who we are and shape our identities locally or regionally, those are the things we have to preserve.”
Powell doesn’t think the African American Museum should be the only Smithsonian museum putting in the work to engage with the art of this movement. “All museums should be doing anti-racist work,” she said.
Downey, the anti-disciplinary artist, thinks there is another way to maintain this art outside of museums — by using the Internet to democratize access to art.
University Rebuild and a University of Saint Thomas research project are trying to accomplish just this. The Urban Art Mapping George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database is looking to document street art around from around the world that has been created in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. So far, the 550 pieces catalogued are ones primarily found in Minnesota.
These pieces are the very art Zellner-Smith hopes to save for her community.
“This art symbolizes so much pain, so much power, and so much healing,” she said. “This is for our black communities afraid to go outside our doorstep, or afraid to exist in a world that doesn’t respect us or value us as people. I knew I wanted this art to be here. I want it to be accessible for the people in this community.”