An estimated one thousand participants have gathered in Dallas this week for Facing Race, a national conference on racial justice. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports they’ve been greeted throughout the city by billboards addressing issues of racial violence and equality – billboards designed by North Texas artists.
A billboard on Commerce Street in West Dallas has several stark, segmented human figures on it. They’re like paper cut-outs, holding up their arms. The image recalls the famous poster for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Anatomy of a Murder. It also refers to Hands Up, Don’t Shoot – the chant and the gesture used by people protesting the recent shootings of young, unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Oakland, California.
Janeil Engelstad explains, “Right now, we’re having a national conversation on racial justice that’s been inspired by the shooting of young African American men. So it seemed like a really good time to engage the arts to be a part of this larger, city-wide and country-wide conversation.”
Engelstad’s organization MAP – or Make Art with Purpose – is dedicated to creating art in the service of social causes like environmentalism or racial equality. Her current project is called Dialogues on Race, and the billboards were timed to be up during the national Facing Race conference this week in Dallas.
“I think it’s really important,” Engelstad says, “whether the issue is race or gun violence or world health, that artists are at the table. Because when artists are at the table with policy makers and corporations and city government, we can bring an expertise and experience to the conversation that can help move us along.”
Engelstad found seven other North Texas artists interested in addressing issues of race on billboards. The artists were paired up, and the four teams created different designs that are currently displayed in 11 locations around Dallas.
One design, for instance, by Jin-Ya Huang and Thania Dominguez McElroy shows one person passing a human heart to another. The billboard says, “We’re all the same color at heart.”
But the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ billboard is not so comforting. Artists Christopher Blay and Gerardo Robles created it. They say their original design was more invested in highlighting racial unity. Then came the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And the choke-hold death of Eric Garner in New York City.
Christopher Blay recalls, “In a period of six to eight weeks, it felt like racial attacks. And I felt an urgent responsibility to respond to that.”
Neither artist had worked at this scale in what is essentially an advertising medium. And both are aware many people barely glance at billboards. Even so, Robles thought it was a great opportunity.
“How else are you going to have impact with tons of people?” he asks. “You know, every day, people pass by billboards and even if you don’t discuss it with friends, at least you have that dialogue within yourself, in your mind.”
Robles says he hadn’t really considered what it would mean having a design of his becoming such a big piece in the cityscape until he drove by one of the billboards at night — and there it was: “I was in a state of awe.”
But when it comes to the basic purpose of this whole endeavor — encouraging a dialogue about race — Blay says he feels conflicted. President Clinton held what he called a national conversation on race — back in 1997. Since then, Blay feels there’s been more talk than action.
“So I feel that we need to shut up already and start addressing the issues of race. But at the same time,” he laughs, “we don’t talk enough about race. It’s something that we acknowledge exists. We say there is racism, but we don’t completely address it.”
Actually, the Facing Race conference includes panels on effective methods of community organizing and activism. Like the billboards, their aim is not just to have that conversation but spread it.
Pablo Pena contributed to this report.