Freddie Gray, the unarmed Black man who died at the hands of police in Baltimore in April 2015, captured the attention of the nation. Not because another Black life was lost, but rather the visceral response from the citizens of West Baltimore. Protests erupted. Buildings burned. People were arrested. People from President Obama to the Mayor Rawlings Blake to countless others called the protesters thugs. The media deemed it a riot. The overriding narrative of the media coverage was disparaging. Nearby schools and their students, including those at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts (AFSIVA), were impacted by the crime and destruction, whether they committed it or not. These high school students lost control of how they wanted to be defined and regarded.
Created in collaboration with graphic design students from the University of Maryland College Park, BMORE Than The Story at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is an exhibition that gives voice to these students and spotlights their concerns. West Baltimore students share their perspectives of the events that unfolded and how their daily lives are shaped by forces beyond their control.
SHOCK. CHAOS. REVENGE. PROUD. SHAME. WHY?! DISAPPOINTMENT. STRUGGLE. SAD. SHELTERED. UNSAFE. CONFUSED. FEAR. MISREPRESENTATION.
When the students at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts (AFSIVA) and the graphic design students at the University of Maryland College Park (UMD) were asked to describe their reactions to the Baltimore Uprising with one word, these are some they chose. Their descriptions reflect the spectrum of emotional reactions and awareness of Baltimore’s struggles within the overall group.
After they discussed these reactions, they began to brainstorm about what messages they wanted to convey in the exhibit. “Change” rose to the top. Change in how the high school students wanted to be regarded. Change in how Baltimore should be regarded. Change in the dearth of advancement opportunities for people of color. Change in how the system could uplift rather than depress a struggling community.
Dr. Kaya is a coordinator in the Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy (MICA) unit on UMD campus. She works with multiracial, multi-ethnic, and Native American groups and helps these groups advocate for their needs. Part of her job also includes leading groups through tough conversations about race, privilege, and disenfranchisement. Mr. Randall is a Baltimore native, UMD graduate, and a local activist. While at UMD he worked with Dr. Kaya in the Mica office and with other campus advocacy organizations. They helped establish our ground rules about how each group would communicate with the other, how they would unpack the Uprising and its related issues, how they would build trust with each other, and how they would prioritize the messages they wanted to convey in the exhibit. These activities laid a solid foundation for the students’ successful collaboration.
After a series of exercises and discussion at their separate campuses, it was time for the two groups to meet. UMD traveled to AFSIVA in early October for their first face-to-face meeting. Later that month, AFSIVA visited the UMD campus. During these exchanges, the students identified their similarities and differences and began to identify themes they wanted to build upon for the exhibit.
The UMD students also researched and designed information graphics that depicted salient Baltimore information. They tackled complicated subjects including the history of riots, uprisings, and protests, Baltimore’s history of spending and budget cuts, structural unemployment, lead poisoning, the achievement gap, policing, crime rates, and trends in life expectancies, income, and poverty rates. They compared these findings to other U.S. cities and national statistics. Through this process the UMD students gained a better understanding of the Uprising as well as how they could use their design skills to present these facts in a coherent and visually compelling way.
The AFSIVA also worked to gain a better understanding of the Uprising and what they wanted to convey through the exhibit and exhibit-related performances. AFSIVA visual arts teacher Martin Goggins led heart-felt discussions and art-making sessions about the Uprising’s impact upon the students and their community. AFSIVA performing arts teacher Koli Tengella also worked with performing arts students to help them write and prepare their performances for the exhibit opening.
In February it was finally time to get down to specifics about what this exhibit would become. Both groups met at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum for a series of daylong collaboration sessions. Students worked in inter-school teams to pitch ideas for the issues they wanted to represent. Our goals were to share the experiences and perspectives of the high school students before, during, and after the Uprising. After these were presented and discussed, the students selected the most promising ideas.
AFSIVA issue the students wanted to represent was the constant surveillance they feel they are under from parents, teachers, and especially the police. To them it seems the police helicopters are carnivorous vultures, always circling overhead in search of prey. They decided to build vultures with security cameras for heads. These birds, placed throughout the exhibit space, would capture visitors’ every move. Nearly 4,000 feathers and 800 glue sticks later, the vultures were ready for installation.
They also wanted to address the one-sided media portrayal of the Uprising. Last year the news media featured images of violence and protest more than the peaceful marches and demonstrations. In much of the coverage, all youth were implicated in the destruction despite that the violence was perpetuated by few rather than many. Further, protesters were criticized and called “thugs.” The students’ solution for this was to print large-scale quotes of the media’s quotes about the Uprising. Students added their counter narratives to those quotes using clear day-glow paint. At first glance, visitors only see the mainstream media quotes. However, when they shine one of the provided black light flashlights, the students’ perspectives add a counter narrative.
The AFSIVA students were insistent on representing the victims of police brutality, particularly people of color, from across the nation. Freddie Gray was one of thousands. The result is a powerful timeline that shows a sharp increase in the number of victims in recent years. Researching these names was a challenge. Until 2015, no U.S. governmental entity tracked the victims of police brutality. This meant there was no database nor single source students could turn to construct this list. In all, they accessed more than 30 different news articles, listings, and other sources to construct a list of more than 1,300 names. They have invited visitors to add the names of those we might have missed. The goal is that this timeline becomes a more complete historical document by the exhibit closing in August.
The students also wanted to represent the change they talked about in that early brainstorming session. Their solution was the “Who Are You?” component, which prompts visitors to consider the ways they are stereotyped and how they defy those stereotypes. The AFSIVA students start the conversation with a video of the way they answer those questions.
During the exhibit opening, the AFSIVA students treated the audience to spoken word, socially conscious rap, and a cappella singing to address issues of social inequity to convey their ideas for healing, understanding, and hope. “BMORE! A Possibility Story,” an encapsulation of this longer performance, plays in the exhibit.
This collaboration was more than an effort to create an exhibit. "BMORE Than The Story" was also an opportunity for the AFSIVA students, and by extension the youth, to have their perspectives heard and validated. For the UMD students, it was an opportunity to get to know and co-design with a new, underrepresented community. Both groups gained first-hand experience about how they can leverage their artistic talents to address relevant issues.
Too often youth voices are discounted simply because of the ages of their authors. Adults incorrectly assume experience and thus wisdom are lacking. "BMORE Than The Story" contradicts this notion. These students have critical and compelling sentiments that are undeniably worthy of our consideration.
Thank you to our generous supporters:
Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts
Baltimore City Public Schools
Robert W. Deutsch Foundation
University of Maryland College Park Foxworth Creative Enterprise Initiative
University of Maryland College Park Friedgen Family Fund
University of Maryland College Park Office of Diversity and Inclusion
This project was made possible by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Maryland Humanities Council.
BMORE Than The Story Exhibit
830 E Pratt St, Baltimore, MD 21202