That was the text message I received from my best friend shortly after hanging up from his previous call. The reflection of headlights in the shape of my bedroom window glided across the ceiling and slowly came to a halt. That was all it took to pull me from bed and down to the front porch, where we discussed our plan for the evening. We made a pact ensuring that no harm would come to us if we stepped out into the protest zone.
“Who’s gonna call my mama if something happens to me?”
I asked this with the expectation of reverse-jinxing myself if found in a position of potential demise. As Black men, my friend and I were still reeling from the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery. We swore not to join their ranks, though their extrajudicial deaths were completely out of their own control. My friend convinced me to bring one of my cameras, noting that this was something that may need documenting. Seven people had been injured in a mass shooting in downtown Louisville. It was May 28, 2020. From that night onward, most of my year would be dedicated to capturing the moments of the movement in the streets, courtrooms, and conference halls of Louisville, Kentucky.
Never would I have imagined that less than a year later, some of my work and the work of others documenting protests for racial justice in Louisville would make its way into an art exhibit at the Speed Art Museum. For “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” the Speed leaned into guest curator Allison Glenn to create the only art exhibition in Kentucky that pays tribute to the members of Louisville’s protest community who were lost in 2020.
When I learned that this very same protest community was planning a visit to the Speed Art Museum this past weekend, it raised a lot of questions for me. Most importantly, what are their thoughts on seeing this kind of work in action? Rarely does the opportunity present itself to view part of your own stories in the scope of fine art. Here are some images and words from the day protesters visited the exhibit.
Amber Brown/Protest Organizer
Jon Cherry: What is it that you do in relation to the movement here in Louisville, Kentucky?
Amber Brown: For work, I drive a city bus. For [the] movement, that’s a much harder question. I’m an organizer… Yeah, that’s a lot. An organizer because I do service work, but I also organize direct actions, but also outings like this, and anything in between. I just plug in wherever I’m needed. I just put on the hat.
JC: How did you come to find out about the “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” exhibit at the Speed?
AB: Somebody posted it on Facebook about a month ago. I knew this was the opening weekend and I wanted to experience this. So I went online and reserved 50 tickets for 1 p.m. slot, and then I quickly realized that 50 wasn’t enough, but they wouldn’t let me reserve any more for 1 p.m. so I had to do 50 more for 1:30 p.m. I wanted to experience it with my protest family. We experienced all of this in real life, as a unit, so I felt like it was only right for us to experience it in this space, especially with some of the pieces that are up.
JC: Why did you feel that it was important to organize everyone to bring them here as a group?
AB: Because a lot of our trauma is on display here. You know, seeing art and photos by Tyler Gerth, – I was in the park when he was shot and killed, when he was murdered. I was there. I saw him laying on that pavement. I didn’t know him well before that, we had seen each other in passing, but I definitely feel his loss … I know his father, I know his sister, I can point them out on the street now. I’ve built relationships with his family, so to see pieces by him, of us, in his vantage point, was hard. Because it’s not something we’ll ever be able to experience again. He’s not going to come to a march tomorrow and to be able to take photos.
AB: And then there’s a picture of Travis [Nagdy]. To see him up there and to know that the only reason there’s pictures of him the way that there is, like there’s a picture of just him, is because he’s not here, he was murdered. Because the only other person who has a picture like that is Breonna [Taylor]. That’s hard because I still go to the Square and think that any moment he’s going to come and give me a hug. That’s why I wanted everyone to experience it together, because, for me, I’m not a crier. I’m not someone that is prone to any kind of emotion besides anger and happiness, those are my two go-tos. So the fact that I’m sitting here crying, means that obviously it provoked some kind of emotion in me, so how can I make sure that, even if I may not be the one to give somebody else a hug, they have somebody there that they know and that they’re familiar with to give them a hug when they need it because they’ve seen these pictures and heard the story.
JC: After coming out of an exhibit like this, what kind of follow through would you like to see in the community? Did this start anything new for you?
AB: It does. It started a conversation I’ve had at least four times today about the existence of protest art and how are they going to tell our story. Because at some point in time, probably within the next year, somebody’s going to want to sell the story of Louisville, Kentucky protests. And like I’ve said at least three times today, I’ve definitely made this threat, if they try to tell our story and we’re not the ones telling it, they will not have access to that space because I will be the organizer to keep them from having that access. I think that it’s necessary that we have a central space that we can go for rest and to be able to experience the art that has been created, and experience the memories that have been shared between us, but also give access to the public to experience what protesting has been for the past year.
Jon Cherry: As an artist & protestor, what do you think whenever you come to an exhibit like this one?
Alexandrea Vega: It’s an important step for our community to acknowledge things that have happened, and things that are still happening. It’s very delicate and I think that the way that the Speed Art Museum handled it was very gracious. There’s so many elements to capture when it comes to such a traumatizing idea of the inequality in our society, so, what was shown in this exhibit, especially that video again, the versatility of just everything being seen. It was needed.
JC: Why did you come to see [the exhibit] today?
AV: This is the spot that I’ll probably be coming back to multiple times, for its duration here, because my friend is on display. My friend Travis Nagdy was a prominent leader in the movement and I’m very thankful he’s here. That’s why I keep coming back. That’s why I’m here today.
Jon Cherry: You mentioned something about bicycling, particularly during the protests. What was that like? Can you describe your group, what you did, and why you were out there?
Paulette Meggoe: It was something that gave me a reason to be a part of. Knowing the situation and being an avid cyclist, I used to race, so biking was a part of my entire life. So becoming a part of this group, the Say Her Name bike ride group, when I discovered them, I wanted to be a part of it because I felt like I could contribute to whatever the issues were. Whatever was going on, I wanted to be involved and a part of it.
We would ride with the protestors who were marching and we would help to control traffic from the streets, from the side streets, motorists or whatever, blocking if off to allow free movement and a continuous march, just to get it out there to say “this is unjust and it is not fair, not right, it’s just not.”
JC: What brings you to the Speed Art Museum today?
PM: The Breonna Taylor exhibit. My daughter – she’s going to be 43 this year – she’s an EMT. She works and lives in New York City. Just the thought of her, and what went down with Breonna Taylor, made me feel the need to come and see and read, interpret for myself, into what went wrong and how this young lady lost her life at such a tender age. Because that could have been my daughter at any point in time, and I feel close kinship to this situation, so I came to satisfy my inner self.
JC: What did you think about the exhibit itself?
PM: It’s well worth seeing. What dug deep into my soul was when I read her mom’s narrative on her child. The timeline. When I read the part where it was in Breonna’s own words, that she thought she was on her way to being something good, something great, that special person, and she was always giving, helping, caring. And her life was snuffed out so violently. It touched me. So I had to stop. As a matter of fact, to be honest, I stopped reading the timeline and I took a break. Took a little walk and I came back and I finished. Because it gets to you. It’s very emotional.
Susan Hershberg/Wiltshire Pantry
Susan Hershberg: During the pandemic, this entity closed, and my whole culinary team, most of the culinary team that had been here at the museum [cafe] was furloughed. A couple of team members were able to come and join our other commissary kitchen and I was able to keep them working, but it was a pretty big crisis to have a whole team out of work. And so with the opening of the Promise, Witness, Remembrance exhibition, I was able to move my culinary team back into the museum and I wanted to make certain that community groups and activists specifically who came to see the exhibition, I wanted to make certain that we were able to offer an additional layer of hospitality.
SH: Museums are not always the most comfortable spaces for activists, you know we haven’t always been welcomed through the doors of institutions like this, and so I really wanted to go that extra mile and make certain that people were not only being invited to the museum, but I wanted them to be invited for a meal, compliments of Wiltshire Pantry.
Because of the economic crisis as a result of the pandemic, I could not have done that without a fundraising effort to support us. We initiated a program we call Nourish and it’s about nourishing our community. We’re raising funds throughout the course of the exhibition to be able to provide complimentary meals for activist and community organizations, so that we can come together and experience the exhibition, which I think is triggering and traumatic for many of us, and then have an opportunity to sit with one another, in community, and break bread. Which I think particularly in times of grieving is very important for us to come together and process our feelings. What a better way to do that than with a meal that’s been prepared with love?
Jon Cherry: What do you feel when you see some of pieces of this exhibit, did it confirm some preconceived notions that you may have had, did you have preconceived notions?
Jason Downey: I came in like I didn’t know what to expect, I hadn’t looked at any of the trailers or advertisements, I just showed up and wanted it to be raw and real. You know, some of the photos and what not, it was very nice to relive some of those moments and good memories, and see all of the actions that [were] going on. Representation in some of the artwork is very strong, the flags with all the gun violence deaths over the years, of course the large portrait of Breonna [Taylor], and then the words written by Breonna’s mother, talking about the timeline of her life, were very emotional and moving.
JC: Do you feel like what has been done here has done justice to honoring the movement here in Louisville, or honoring the lives of those who were lost?
JD: I definitely think it’s very difficult to capture multiple peoples’ lives and influences over the course of 15 art pieces in three rooms. There’s never a good way to give justice to people that have died from causes like this, or in general, you know. I think that we could have 10 rooms and 400 pieces donated to what Travis [Nagdy] did, or Breonna’s life, or the photos that Tyler [Gerth] took, right? It would never really capture it. Of course, I always like to see representation of art and whatnot here locally, and there’s not a lot of that. I hope that will be captured elsewhere, but it is still very strong to see work from Black artists from all across the country that are actually represented, not just a bunch of white folks doing their interpretation they thought they should be.
Jon Cherry: Did the exhibit match with your expectations? How did you feel about it?
Ti’ant Wyatt: I didn’t really think more on the expectations, more on preparing myself mentally and emotionally, because a lot of that was really hard to hear, see, and read. It’s the truth, but the truth makes people uncomfortable, and that’s probably the best way to understand a lot of these things.
JC: How do you feel coming out of it? I know you’re close to the people that are in this.
TW: My first [thought] was, “keep going.” Honestly, if anything, it hurts me a lot to know that [Travis Nagdy] can’t see himself in this museum today. I saw a lot of people who did see themselves today, and there’s always a way to go further, to keep going. There’s a deeper meaning to keep going. It’s fight harder, keep going. That’s the only thought I had coming out: keep going.
Disclaimer: Photographer Jon Cherry has work in the exhibit — a portrait of his friend Travis Nagdy, a protest leader who was shot and killed in October.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.