Reclaiming Their Voices

UMD graphic design students met with high schoolers from the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts every two weeks in a UMD studio to work on pieces for the exhibit.

UMD, Baltimore High School Students Explore Race and Urban Unrest Through Art
by Natalie Koltun ’16 | photo by John T. Consoli

The vulture hunches menacingly over the room. Its outstretched wings, shaped by long black feathers and metal wiring, span more than five feet. Fixed atop its head is a security camera.

Its prey is the black youth of Baltimore, as this scavenger is a piece of art crafted by students to express their feelings about the police presence in the city, particularly during last spring’s unrest.

The vulture is just one part of a contemporary art exhibit by advanced graphic design students from the University of Maryland and high schoolers from the city’s Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts.

“Youths have unique stories to articulate, but their message resonates with people of all generations,” says Audra Buck-Coleman, assistant professor of design. “Art can reach people in unexpected ways.”

She launched the project after watching media coverage of riots that followed Freddie Gray’s death. She says news outlets’ accounts focused almost exclusively on violence and destruction, which generalized the city’s youth population as criminals.

Producing the "BMORE Than the Story" exhibit, running through Aug. 28 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, gave the 25 Augusta Fells students an opportunity, she says, to “reclaim their narratives” by sharing their stories surrounding the city’s turmoil.

Catania Nolan, a junior at Augusta Fells, helped create posters that show only quotes from city officials and news articles until placed under a black light. Then changes to the quotes appear, reflecting the students’ perspective.

“Our story is more than just what was in those news stories,” Nolan says. “Yet a lot of people think us kids don’t really understand what happened. But we were there. We saw it, lived it and went to school right in the middle of all of it.”

Other components of the exhibit include a wall of 1,300 names of those who, based on the students’ research of newspapers, crime reports and databases, died from police brutality in the city since 1960; a chalkboard asking, “Who are you? And who are you not?” to spark conversation among museum visitors; and videos of students dancing, rapping and sharing poetry about their experiences.

Genesis Henriquez ’16, creative director for UMD’s part of the project, says the exhibit humanizes abstract topics like race and class and allows high school students to discuss these hotbed issues in a constructive, artistic manner.

“I hope that people who come to the exhibit really understand where these students are coming from, and how it’s empowering them to speak up,” she says.


Gary Pavela

President Obama made a powerful statement on this topic in his May 7 commencement speech at Howard University. Implicit in his message was the danger of vilifying all police offers for the actions of a few: "[C]hange requires more than just speaking out -- it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. When I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinoiss first racial profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement. I didnt say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to do something. I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve. And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the good cops with the best of intentions -- including, by the way, African American police officers -- might have unconscious biases, as we all do. So we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus. And because we took the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the police -- because it improved the trust and cooperation of the community -- and it was good for the communities, who were less likely to be treated unfairly. And I can say this unequivocally: Without at least the acceptance of the police organizations in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed. Very simple. They would have blocked them."

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