Across the US, artist-designed billboards are set to send an important message to coincide with an important day of remembrance
Mon 12 Oct 2020 11.57 EDT
Many might know today as Columbus Day, which celebrates the Italian explorer’s arrival to America in 1492. But to many others, today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a counter-event that honors Native Americans whose lives were destroyed by colonial rule.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been celebrated since it was first introduced in 1977 at an indigenous conference but took over a decade to be officially acknowledged and remains overlooked.
Today, the artist-founded initiative For Freedoms is launching a country-wide billboard project honoring the day, featuring more than 50 different billboards designed by artists including Ai Weiwei, Marilyn Minter and Shepard Fairey in everywhere from South Carolina to Montana and Alaska. It’s what they call The 2020 Awakening, and is inspired by the Wide Awakes, a group of 19th-century activists who helped cultivate the youth vote.
“Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an attempt to change the narrative by changing the narrators,” said Claudia Peña, the executive director of For Freedoms. “We’re showcasing artists who ask provocative questions, and in this, the narrative of the 2020 election will involve conversation between artists and the residents who see these billboards, mostly in rural areas.”
Seven artists in the country-wide project speak about what today means to them, their billboards and voting next month.
Mark ‘Feijão’ Milligan II
“I was born and raised on St Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and I’m honored to have my billboard on my island. This campaign brings long overdue attention back to the islands and engages them as equal members. I’m of mixed ancestry with African, Spanish and Taino roots, so Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents a correction to the biased narrative we have been led to believe as truth. The phrase on my banner ‘Does Black Innocence Matter?’ is a reference to Black Lives Matter and is an extension of my recent painting Inocensia Negra, created after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. This piece depicts three young black boys playing in the ocean, representing the innocence of my two sons and that of all black children. Too often, the youth of boys within the African diaspora is stolen. Whether it be at the hands of police, mass incarceration or media stigmatization, this work celebrates the youth of black children. I long for a future where our youth can approach each day with bright eyes knowing that this world cherishes their brilliance.”
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is deeply important to me because it points to the idea that we should not be giving thanks for a ‘giving’ or sharing American lands, but looking at how to repair the harm done to Native peoples by the marriage of white supremacy and settler colonialism. This year, as we watch America burn, this day should be used to lobby congress that we center our tribal leaders as we think about how to safeguard North Americans lands, in the same way they have for millennia. My billboard reading ‘Have You Mailed In Your Ballot?’ is a call for people to safeguard their health as they take part in our democratic process. This piece is located in Montpelier, Vermont, which has an older population, who are as vulnerable to Covid-19, just as black and brown groups, so mail-in voting can keep these people out of harm.”
“During the global pandemic, an increasingly contentious political landscape and the surge of energy from rededicating ourselves to racial justice in America, I’ve witnessed my incredible peers balance fear, bravery, a commitment to family, and to local and global communities of underrepresented people. I’ve seen them create art in response and build new systems of support. But among my friends, especially my female-identifying friends and especially those of us who are mothers, many of us are being asked to do the undoable daily. I wanted a message to remind the world that through change-making, we can’t let ourselves become kindling. I don’t want us to burn out. All the crises in the world today are asking us to run more and more current through the little filaments of our minds and souls, but when those go out, does it leave the world a brighter place? Of course, it doesn’t. The social, economic, physical, political, intellectual demands of a movement must bring with it the great care for and value of each human being who is part of it.”
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents a step forward towards acknowledging the trauma the United States has placed upon our communities. It represents an opportunity to re-imagine how we see, treat and honor those that have lost almost everything, yet they preserve our relationship to the earth. As I celebrate this day, I also see a future where we celebrate indigenous peoples every day, not just one day a year. In my artwork, there is an image of Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who once told me: ‘You are desperately needed to save the soul of this world, did you think you were put here for something less?’ This message stayed with me, guiding me as a storyteller. It’s my duty to honor his voice and all indigenous people who have been stewards of the earth. But it’s also a reminder that we’re all responsible to protect the planet.”
“To me, Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents a baby step. It’s a start. The day before I created my piece for this project, I saw a news story on Dawn Wooten, a nurse at an Ice detention facility who was speaking out about hysterectomies being performed without consent. Just reading the story made me nauseated. When I began my creative process the next day, all I could see was a hand snatching a female reproductive system away from a body and setting it up on a mantle like a trophy. The history of forced sterilizations against black and brown women in this country is so alarming and so inhuman, from the serial killer J Marion Sims to Indian health services and California prisons. The question on the billboard seeks a reflection on all aspects of this intersection.”
Edgar Heap of Birds
“I feel that Native reality often exists in a sphere not comprehended by the dominant culture. Every day is a Native day for our indigenous spirit communities. We do not need a calendar holiday to acknowledge respect for ourselves, the tribal youth, indigenous elders and this precious natural world. But as a rebuttal to the murderous legacy of the US colonial society based upon ongoing violence, removing the Columbus Day celebration is productive. As this imbalanced empire continues to struggle with itself and those that have been violated, we must realize that a republic cannot create distinctions of immigration when all its members are foreigners. So, at the beginning of nationhood, these founding fathers’ tenants must look back in the past to understand whose laws and care came first on these lands? Who has the love to preserve and renew our earth, and not lead the natural life into decay?”
“Grounded is an organization created by Memphis artists that harnesses the power of creativity to address pressing issues faced by our communities. Our goal is to put an end to the staggering youth violence and incarceration rates in Memphis, and beyond. The phrases on our two billboards are quotes from our unreleased short film Me and the Light, directed by Alan Spearman, which features Memphis artists and our team members from Grounded, including Lil Buck, who is featured on the billboard in Jackson. The film shows how we can use art to transform violence and promote peace. Abel Billings, 17, was part of our spring Covid-19 response pilot program and created a series of images in response to watching the film. Billings’ artwork was chosen to be shown alongside a quote from the film: ‘When you close your eyes, what do you see? The imprints of your past? Or the dreams you wish to be?’ Public art projects like this are so important because it reminds us that art should be accessible to everyone.”