By Laura Riggs | Photos by Tony Smailagic
“Only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.” ~ James Baldwin, from his poem “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” (1962)
Jacksonville has a steadfast record of social activism and civil rights movements, stemming from a violent racial history that (for many) is uncomfortable to talk about; a history that is woven so deeply into the community, and our country, that it continues to this day. The reasons we avoid these discussions range from feelings of shame and regret to lack of accountability, to struggling to take action to make amends, to indifference. By abstaining from difficult conversations and moving too slowly to change policy, we fail to heal the past wounds by allowing systemic racism to endure. As a descendant of slave owners and former director of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Hope McMath is ready to engage in those difficult conversations. In a recent interview with a local podcast, Swan Dive, McMath discussed her time at the Cummer, her abrupt exit, and how she became “obsessed with how to use my seat of privilege, both as a white woman and as somebody leading one of our largest cultural institutions … how to use that to create progress within the city that is my home.”
The 2016 exhibit “LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience” was an emotional and engaging presentation of work by contemporary artists dedicated to the rich artistic African American heritage that flows through Northeast Florida. The exhibit created a platform to discuss race, equity, and community issues and received praise from all who attended. However, many in power were not ready to face painful truths, which cost McMath her dream job. Many in the community would not take such a risk. Shawana Brooks, cofounder of the 6 Feet Away Gallery and Color Jax Blue, acknowledges, “people are scared to talk about things because they are afraid the funding will leave.”
It should not be surprising then that when local artists Nicole “Nico” Holderbaum and Suzanne Pickett were commissioned to lead the installation (along with local high school students) of the “Hope and History” mural in 2018, it marked the first time a social message would be so prominently displayed on a mural in the city. A visual account from an appalling day in Jacksonville’s past is now documented on the Eastside Brotherhood building at 915 A. Philip Randolph Blvd. Created from a compilation of images taken on August 27, 1960, the mural serves as both a reminder and a lesson about what happened on Ax Handle Saturday—a day when over 200 white men attacked a group of Black teenagers, with ax handles and baseball bats, who had been protesting segregation by staging peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters for the two weeks prior.
“Art [can] expand on dialogue to help educate the community,” Brooks offers. This past summer, as the pandemic had shut everything down, as pent-up resentment over a wholly inadequate government response coalesced with people’s righteous anger towards systemic racism and police brutality, people protested in cities all across the country in solidarity with Black and Brown communities. Here in Jacksonville, one of the most diverse groups of people participated in one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in the city’s history. As a cultural activist and artist, Brooks understood that the “narrative of [these] traumas needed to be expressed through art.” She and her husband, fellow artist Roosevelt Watson III, initiated the Color Jax Blue public art project centered on three main themes: the importance of voting, the impact that Black women/womxn have as activists in their communities, and to honor those lost by racial violence. She worked with the private sector to fund artists’ stipends and materials. From there, they sought out several local Black artists to co-create three murals on an old commercial building in historic Durkeeville at the corner of 18th and Myrtle. “Black artists don’t get opportunities for public funding, due to their [perceived] lack of experience.” Brooks intentionally selected talent that hadn’t yet worked on a large public project. She is proud that they “now they have nationally recognized art to feature on their resume.”