Tamika Palmer says the art exhibition dedicated to her daughter, Breonna Taylor, is everything she hoped it would be; it’s peaceful, she says, “to be able to come to this place and just be filled with her spirit.”
It’s been nearly 13 months since Louisville Metro Police officers shot and killed Taylor in her home. Now a show in her honor is on view at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum. It’s called “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.” Palmer never imagined her daughter would be memorialized this way.
“I was in awe just at the thought that people who don’t even know her take time out of their day to draw something of her … even just as simple as her name,” Palmer says. “And to see it all come together is just a blessing.”
Palmer — along with Taylor’s sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer, and aunt, Bianca Austin — had a hand in developing this show. “We’ve never done anything like this,” Tamika Palmer says. “So it was a learning process. But it was a nice space to be in.”
The family worked alongside a number of other community members, local artists and mental health professionals. Toya Northington, Community Engagement Strategist at the Speed Art Museum, wanted people who are close to the issues of police brutality and racism to have a voice in the show — but that wasn’t a simple ask.
“When I ask people to come to the table in a time where we are greatly divided as a community, I’m asking them to come on board and to support this institution that has not been known for their support for the Black community and marginalized communities,” Northington explains.
So yes, people were reluctant. But Northington was able to build a Louisville-based steering planning committee, as well as a team of researchers. They didn’t always agree on everything, but there was consensus that this show should primarily feature Black artists. “That was the number one requirement,” Northington says.
Guest curator Allison Glenn, who is also associate curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., worked with these committees, as well as a national advisory panel she assembled. These groups encouraged her to arrange the show in a very specific part of the museum — the original 1927 building built to house the Speed’s collection. This space normally holds centuries-old works by Dutch and Flemish artists — all white.
“To have a contemporary exhibition by majority Black artists in this space acts as a decolonization of these galleries,” Glenn says.
The show is laid out in three sections to reflect the words in the title: “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.”
In the first, artists use recognizable American symbols to examine promises made by this nation, like a wall installation of shoelaces spelling out “We the People,” by Nari Ward.
“I just wanted to start a conversation around the founding of these organizing documents that constitute our country, and perhaps help us understand how we got there,” Glenn says.
A well-known portrait of Breonna Taylor is the centerpiece of the show. Amy Sherald painted it for a Vanity Fair cover last year and this is the first time it’s on public view.
It shows Taylor in a flowy aquamarine dress, wearing an engagement ring that her boyfriend never got to give her. It can be seen from every room. The Speed is in the process of jointly acquiring it with the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
In the second section, “Witness,” artists reflect on contemporary history.
Louisville-born artist Noel W Anderson incorporates images of Black women ripped from old issues of Ebony magazine. He erases parts of the picture, leaving just the hint or an eye or a smile.
“They require the audience to witness the erasure of this Black woman, or these Black women in these images…” Anderson says. “But it also then requires the viewer to project the promise back onto those empty spaces.”
This room also displays photographs from the racial justice protests in Louisville, taken by Louisville-based photographers, including Tyler Gerth, who was shot and killed over the summer at the park where many demonstrators would gather. Other exhibiting artists include Terry Adkins, Hank Willis Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Nick Cave, Lorna Simpson, Ed Hamilton and Bethany Collins. You can see the full list here.”
In the final section “Remembrance,” the walls are painted deep purple, one of Taylor’s favorite colors. Her mother, Tamika Palmer contributed a work on the walls here, too. She wrote a timeline of Taylor’s life.
“I don’t know who else could have told the story,” Palmer says. “I didn’t know how exactly it would even play out. But I just knew that there was a lot of stuff that people still didn’t know about her. … She died so violently, but to know that she was never a violent person.”
Palmer says Taylor was easygoing her whole life. They called her “Easy Breezy.”
“You want people to not forget, to not move on, because the real goal hasn’t been served yet.”
And that goal, Palmer says, is justice.