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Arts Beat: SLOMA art exhibit documents local Black Lives Matter movement

Courtesy of Richard Fusillo

A new exhibit documenting the local Black Lives Matter movement is open for virtual viewing at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

The exhibit is titled "We All Bleed," and is hosted in collaboration with the nonprofit R.A.C.E. Matters SLO. It showcases the thousands who marched in San Luis Obispo for months in 2020, calling for racial justice as a part of the national outcry over the killings by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The installation includes black and white pictures of the 2020 marches taken by photographer Richard Fusillo, as well as audio clips of local Black activists talking about their experiences.

“The premise is to uplift the BIPOCcommunity here locally," Fusillo said, "and [show] how important it is that small communities like San Luis Obispo County and the city -- especially like SLO -- how important activism is and can be, and how it could actually affect where we live."

Fusillo said his intention is to highlight both the joyous and tense moments throughout the marches -- partly with photos and accompanying audio, and partly with the inclusion of donated protest signs that cover a full wall of the exhibit.

“We had like, a hundred signs, which was really awesome. It was really fun to put together on the wall,” Fusillo said. “It was kind of like a giant Tetris piece for two days.”

Joshua Anthony Powell, also known as J.P., is a contributor to the art installation and is one of the people in the photographs. Powell said many people in opposition to the marches were pushing an incorrect narrative that the protests were destructive and violent.

“These marches -- this movement that happened -- was beautiful and it brought people together, and it allowed folks a space to feel free,” Powell said.

It has been slightly over a year since police killed Breonna Taylor, and Powell -- who uses they/them pronouns -- says they hope Taylor’s loss is not forgotten and that the art exhibit will serve as historical documentation of the continuous fight for racial justice following her death.

“Can you fathom just sleeping, feeling as if everything's okay? You have your partner next to you, holding you safe and tight. All of a sudden your door gets busted down, 32 rounds of bullets get blown all throughout your apartment and you were the only casualty there,” Powell said, recalling news reports of Taylor's death. “You just, you work so hard to save other people's lives. You worked so hard to make other people's lives better. And you got taken out for that.”

Nalah Loman is a San Luis Obispo County resident who also contributed to the art exhibit. She said she’s happy to see Black representation in San Luis Obispo in a way she hasn’t before.

“It kind of shows those of us who have been out in the community that there are people out there who are going to uplift us the way Richard [Fusillo] has,” Loman said. “And, so, it's okay for us to keep going out and making the white community uncomfortable because we just want to fight for our liberation. Having such a symbolic art installment by Richard put in downtown SLO, that was huge for us. If anything, it makes us feel like we're actually getting things accomplished,” Loman said.

Loman said, over time -- as the protests got smaller due to the worsening pandemic -- mutual aid efforts seemed to increase, which included community efforts to redistribute money, food and needed resources to low income and unhoused San Luis Obispo County residents.

“So, it's a lot of little things like that, that people don't see as a part of activism. They think that the main -- only thing -- we do is post on Instagram and show up for protests,” Loman said. “But for a lot of us it's a lot of Zoom meetings. It's a lot of preparation. It's a lot of talking with city officials.”

Loman encouraged her peers to keep moving forward with the activism that started during the 2020 protests.

“Continue to fight day in and day out wherever you are, whether it's in your family, whether it's within your friend group or if it's physically within your community,” Loman said.

R.A.C.E. Matters SLO founder Courtney Haile said when the protests were first beginning, the amount of interest and participation was nearly overwhelming.

“I have to say, in reaction to the murder of George Floyd and in the aftermath of that, there was the initial interest in Black people and helping Black people -- in Black voices -- that was almost too much,” Haile said. “It was a little startling, just like, so much interest at once. And it felt strange having to reconcile that. It took a video so cruel -- and that it took a video at all.”

Haile said one moment from the marches stands out to her.

“I remember a moment where I made the decision to have the crowd split in two, and the Black youth -- and then any Black folks -- were just invited to walk down the middle and be cheered,” Haile said. “And that moment definitely stands out as special because I knew -- especially the youth leaders, they spoke about this -- that they did not feel included in San Luis Obispo. And they spoke very clearly at rallies about how they feel here. And so to see that moment of folks just uplifting them and [saying] ‘we see you’ was something many of us never thought we'd see in San Luis Obispo.

The exhibit “We All Bleed,” is on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and can be viewed virtually on the SLOMA website. The installation will be up through May 2 and the exhibit will also feature a film by civil rights photographer Danny Lyon, titled SNCC, hosted in partnership with R.A.C.E. Matters SLO.

The film will premiere both in person and virtually, with a conversation between Lyon and local activists following the showing. Tickets go on sale April 10, when guests can also sign up for a timed viewing of the gallery.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Michael Barros is a reporter in the KCBX Newsroom. He has a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University, where he spent two years reporting for the campus news outlet, Mustang Media. He spent several months as an intern for NPR's All Things Considered in Washington D.C. Michael covers breaking news for daily newscasts, and creates features for the local broadcast of All Things Considered and Morning Edition. When he's not reporting, he's probably hammocking in a forest or painting.
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