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Carrie Mae Weems is one of the most influential artists of our time. The MacArthur Genius award winner, best known for her photography and video work examining history, identity, class and culture, teamed up with 10 arts and cultural organizations across four cities in two of the Southern states hit hardest by COVID-19 in order to aid Black and brown communities there.
Combining Weems' arresting photographic images with informative messages, RESIST COVID/TAKE 6! is a mixed media public art campaign that battles the effects of racism during the pandemic.
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"In talking with my best friend at the beginning of the lock down I had a deep sense—we had a deep sense—that the virus was going to have a deep impact on Black and brown people specifically," Weems explained. "Not only because they are frontline workers. In many instances they are the nannies, the nurses, the clerks, the postal and delivery people, nurses aids, grocery clerks—we know based on class divisions, this would probably be true, and also because of underlying health conditions that exist in poor and disadvantaged communities."
Weems was intentional with her visuals and messages, as she wanted to connect with audiences of color on a personal level while also highlighting the racial inequalities they're facing. Even the name RESIST COVID/TAKE 6! builds on recent groundswell protests for justice by employing decidedly political language to empower people to "resist" COVID-19 by "tak[ing]" six feet of space for social distancing.
The project first made an appearance in Syracuse, New York, where Weems is an artist-in-residence, but made its way down South to Atlanta and Savannah via SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design early last month. Weeks later, the exhibit arrived in two more Southern cities, Dallas and Fort Worth, through the joint effort of a cultural consortium comprised of the Dallas Contemporary, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas Museum of Art, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Crow Museum of Asian Art, African American Museum of Dallas, and Gossypion Investments.
In Georgia and Texas, there has been a resurgence of the virus due to the poor decisions of elected state officials. It's left many local city governments scrambling to protect their citizens and manage the pandemic outbreak. Dallas city council member Casey Thomas, II sees RESIST COVID/TAKE 6! as a supplemental effort to the city government's own public health campaign.
"For several months now, the Communications Department of the city of Dallas has provided flyers and infographics have been posted on social media and hand delivered in local neighborhoods. Resist COVID/ TAKE 6! has enhanced the city's public health campaign," he said. "I hope this art campaign will continue to raise awareness to the dangers of COVID."
"Enhanced" is a good term for it, because the project exemplifies a new process by which local governments, cultural institutions, non-profits, and organizations can work together to serve the public. Though the City of Dallas has a public health campaign for COVID-19, there is no denying that a gap between Black and brown communities and government—whether it be local, state, or federal—exists. We've seen it in protests that ask for police defunding, as well as in citizens being unable to get adequate government support and information during the pandemic.
But in cities like Savannah and DFW, cultural institutions and artists are stepping up to bridge the divide. "Art has an amazing capacity to humanize seemingly inhuman conditions," said Laurie Farrell, Senior Curator at The Dallas Contemporary. and can be used "to unify, inform and communicate important messages to people," Dr. Audra Price Pittman, Vice President of SCAD Atlanta commented.
"The South is known for family and gathering and being together. We want people to remember that if we don't take the necessary precautions, we won't be together long," explained Price Pittman.
It was with this in mind that SCAD brought RESIST COVID/TAKE 6! to Savannah and Atlanta. "Partnering with an internationally renowned artist to spread raise awareness about COVID-19 was imperative because it impacts the communities where SCAD is located," said Dr. Price Pittman.
Alison Hearst of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth echoed Dr. Pittman, "Our mission at the Museum is to serve the public, and we've had to find innovative ways to do so while our doors were closed… RESIST COVID/TAKE 6! is very different, though. Not only is it a way to share art with the public, but, most importantly, we all see it as a lifesaving initiative that helps raise public awareness in the communities most affected by this pandemic."
As an outdoor exhibit, RESIST COVID/Take 6! is free and accessible to all. However, in keeping with Weems' focus on communities of color, it appears more prominently in neighborhoods with large populations of African American, Latinx, and Indigenous folks. In some cases, the messaging has been translated into Spanish. Taking the art outside of fine art museums and institutions, places that sometimes feel inaccessible to communities of color, and tailoring the message to those very communities, the exhibit is meeting citizens where they live and work.
Promotional materials: church fans. Photography Courtesy of SCAD & Resist COVID/ Take 6!.
The DFW campaign takes a similar approach to the Georgia exhibits, which uses billboards, bus shelters, as well as jewel boxes and kiosks to disseminate the images. In addition, Farrell mentioned that the first phase of the DFW campaign will also feature public service announcements and other community art installations across targeted neighbors to provide more information which could help curb spread of the virus.
"The second phase will include the distribution of reusable cloth face masks to DFW areas with high COVID-19 infection rates. In addition, a series of promotional items—buttons, posters, flyers, and hand fans—will be made available at community centers, COVID-19 testing sites, food banks, and churches," said Farrell.
It's important to note that cultural institutions are not the only ones involved in making the art project happen.
"We recently paired up with Meals on Wheels in Atlanta and America's Second Harvest in Savannah to provide thousands of flyers and church-style fans with Weems' message and info on local testing sites," said Price Pittman. "SCAD volunteers are also filling RESIST COVID/TAKE 6 bags with schools supplies to donate to various local organizations."
The same is being done in Dallas and Fort Worth where the cultural consortium has enlisted the help of 56 regional groups, including the City of Dallas and the North Texas Food Bank.
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"The city of Fort Worth as a whole has really banded together quite quickly in our collective efforts to roll this project out, and we are thrilled to be working with the Tarrant Area Food Bank, Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society, Inc., Arts Council of Fort Worth, city libraries, local universities, and Fort Works Art, to only name a few," said Hearst.
The way organizations, non-profits, institutions, and universities have come together in all four cities to roll out the exhibit is a notable and unprecedented occurrence.
"It's relatively rare that you can say… your project is helping to save lives, but I believe this project is doing just that."
After a call with Weems in early June, Farrell immediately reached out to a group of women curators in Dallas and Fort Worth who had been meeting informally for dinner prior to the pandemic. In no time, a cultural consortium formed of eight museums across Dallas and Fort Worth and one cultural business. They launched the exhibit less than two months later.
What's most exciting about SCAD and the DFW cultural consortium is how they've chosen to present the exhibit. Neither Weems nor the Southern institutions are centering themselves in this project but continue to push the focus to what—and who—really matters.
"None of the museums' names are listed on the materials or billboards as the project's mission is what's most important to us all," said Hearst. Through their participation with this exhibit, the cultural institutions are publicly recognizing that communities of color experience disadvantages related to economic disenfranchisement and inadequate access to healthcare, and it's hurting them now during the pandemic.
Weems' mission was to save lives through actionable words combined with the images of people of color, and it has resulted in something that's historically unique in the world of art.
"This is as much of a public health project as it is an art project," added Darryl Ratcliff of Gossypion Investments, a DFW cultural consortium member. "It's relatively rare that you can say… your project is helping to save lives, but I believe this project is doing just that."