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Artistic activism heals Chapel Hill community through change

A 2015 Ebony Readers/Onyx Theater (EROT) performance.

A 2015 Ebony Readers/Onyx Theater (EROT) performance.

“It was a rough summer (with) a lot of death and a lot of anger,” Beshea said. “I thought if we go back into that space (of the University) and we don’t have healing, everyone’s going to be so exhausted.”

To find that healing, Beshea wrote and performed spoken-word poetry, read literature by black women and attended vigils.

“We get them to see things in different ways through protesting, but we get them to feel different ways through art,” she said.

Tonight, Beshea hopes to encourage more healing by bringing the artwork and words of black women to the forefront at the #SayHerName vigil in memoriam of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman found dead in her Texas jail cell on July 13.

Like Beshea, many students and local residents have been turning to art to find peace in the midst of an era of many racial conflicts.

In the middle of the August heat, Pierce Freelon, a lecturer in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, spent two weeks helping a 12-year-old learn how to crochet hats that feature the words “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#SayHerName.”

Freelon, who is also an artist and leader at ARTVSM Studios on Franklin Street, helped to run BLK AGST (pronounced “Black August”), a two-week camp where young African-American students can explore their racial identities through various types of art such as filmmaking, beatmaking and visual art.

“As M.K. Asante said, ‘The artivist uses her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression by any medium necessary,’” Freelon said. “Art opens up different kinds of doors to different opportunities and new possibilities that perhaps were invisible to you prior.”

During the inaugural camp, Freelon said he attempted to not only put the black experience into historical context but tried to make their artistic endeavors relevant to the many racial problems and discussions happening today.

Similarly, as community organizer of The Siren, a student-produced magazine focusing on feminist issues, sophomore Olivia Linn spent the past year using art to fight back against prejudices.

In the spring editon, the focus topic was race.

Although The Siren focuses on combatting different issues through art, Linn said she does not believe that art alone can eradicate prejudices, especially one as complex as racism.

“I don’t think that art itself is the kind of thing that will create the kind of change that we’re looking for,” she said. “But it does create a cultural shift, and it does bring awareness to a lot of issues.”

Whether or not art brings about change, Freelon said he believes it serves as a major driving force behind activism, particularly in the African-American community.

“The artists who are part of a community truly have their fingers on the pulse of the community and are truly in solidarity with the people.”

In the past few months, public figures around Chapel Hill seem to have agreed. The Chapel Hill Arts Council annual Community Art Project focused on race in the 2015 project, “ARTVSM in Performance: Cristo Negro, Diablo Blanco.” The “Parade of Humanity” mural on the west wall of Carolina Coffee Shop now contains the words “black lives matter,” painted by the artist himself after it was vandalized with the same words.

When she turned away from the racial tensions of Twitter and found solace in art, Beshea had ideas of solidarity and justice in mind.

“I think art is activism,” Beshea said.

“Art is meant to push those barriers at all times.”

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