Public Painting Of Trayvon Martin Sparks Conversations About Racism On Campus

Feb 12, 2018


An art professor just spent four days publicly painting a six-foot-tall portrait of Trayvon Martin, the black teen whose murder in 2012 polarized the country and ignited a debate on racial profiling and civil rights.  

The performance took place at Westfield State University, where last semester almost two dozen racist signs and messages were reported around campus.

Imo Imeh is an artist and teacher, an African-American man born in the U.S. of Nigerian parents. He led the 17-hour public art project: one hour for each year of Trayvon Martin's life.

"So far, if you count two hours on Saturday, where I stained the canvas, five hours on Monday, and now we just completed another three hours, so that's ten," Imeh said Tuesday, as he took a break for a few minutes.

About 30 people had come to watch him that evening. Later, it was quiet except for audio from a TV looping footage of the trial of George Zimmeran -- the man who fatally shot Martin, and was acquitted on all charges.

Two images were on the canvas in red, gray and black: a face painted in oil, and a profile in charcoal.

"We're looking at Trayvon right now in two instances," Imeh said. "One, where it's just a portrait of his face, and the other one, almost like a moment, the moment before he died. This moment of terror."

Imeh's canvas was set up on the floor of a small auditorium at Westfield State. While he painted, musicians flowed in and out of the room, set themselves up on stage and played without introduction.

Imo Nse Imeh, artist and Westfield State University professor, paints images of Trayvon Martin during a multi-day event.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

Westfield State senior Kevin Mason, who is black, brought in his drum kit and played a composition he wrote using percussion and audio of 911 calls from the night Trayvon Martin was shot.

"I had a thought in my mind, when I heard about what Professor Imeh was doing," Mason said.

Kevin Mason, a Westfield State senior, composed an audio portrait of percussion and 911 calls from the night Trayvon Martin was shot.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

But he didn't approach Imeh with a proposal; Imeh came to him.

"And he said, 'I want you to do something,' and I was like, 'Great, because I already have an idea,'" Mason said.

Mason played his piece twice over the four days of painting. The second time, he ended it with the sound of cicadas -- loud, then soft.

In the painting, Imeh had drawn cicadas into the form of a crown that both the face and the profile wear.

He used the images, he said, because some species hibernate for 17 years.

The painting of Trayvon Martin during a multi-day event at Westfield State University.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

A Very Unfortunate Fraternity

The soul of Trayvon Martin was not alone in the room, Imeh said. He had hung photos of more than a dozen black teenage boys who were killed between 1916 and 2015. Among them: Emmet Till, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice and Eugene Williams. Imeh tied them together in what he called a very unfortunate fraternity.

Imo Nse Imeh, artist and Westfield State University professor, paints images of Trayvon Martin during a multi-day event.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

"I like the fact that these boys are together," Imeh said, "even though we're dealing with decades and decades and decades of space. And the students, as they're reading [the essays under the photos], they're like, 'It's the same thing. It’s the same story.'"

This exhibit follows a semester when Westfield State University experienced a rash of racist crime; 23 incidents reported in the fall.

Racist notes were slipped under dorm room doors and written on students' dry erase boards. One student reported she was assaulted, with racist language directed at her.

It felt like a change in the weather on campus, Imeh said, but it's not like this hasn't happened before.

"So for everybody who came to me, who told me this is not the Westfield that [they] know," Imeh said, "I hurt my head rolling my eyes a little, and other black students and faculty members, the same."

Optical Illusions Against Hate

Westfield State mathematics professor Julian Fleron came one night to watch Imeh paint. He didn't know him very well, Fleron said, but it was rare to see someone paint like this in public.

Fleron, who is white, said that in his own classes last term at Westfield State, his students came up with mathematical art -- against hate. They created perspective drawings and optical illusions in response to the multiple reports of racism on campus. Fleron was quick to point out that what happened last semester is not just a campus problem.

"This is a national problem. This is an international problem," Fleron said. "My hope by what we’re seeing tonight, and what I'm doing in my classroom, what we're doing, is we're sending groups of people forward who can be the change we wish to see."

Westfield State University students sing at the end of the public painting performance, directed by Felicia Barber.
Credit Westfield State University

'I Cut'

On the last day of this public painting, the auditorium was packed with students and adults. Many without seats stood in the back.

Everyone who entered was given an envelope and asked to wait before opening it.

The audience watched as Imeh moved the canvas from the floor, where he worked, to the stage. A student gospel choir stood around the painting and performed two pieces, without accompaniment.

After they left the stage, Imeh took a piece of charcoal and marked up the finished portrait into 17 sections -- like the number of hours he painted, like the number of years in Trayvon Martin's life.

Credit Westfield State University

When he finished, he directed the audience to open their envelopes. Sixteen people had numbered cards with the words "I cut." The rest had cards that read "I watched them cut."

Imeh then took a box cutter and sliced into the painting. He appeared to be crying. He invited those 16 audience members to come up and help him destroy what he'd created over four days.

A Boy, Not A Concept

Imeh said he has plans for the 17 pieces, maybe an entire body of work that helps everyone see Trayvon Martin as a boy, not a concept, though that will be a challenge.

"He's going to remain [a concept]," Imeh said. "What I can do is have a conversation about the problem of how we see him, and maybe how we see other black boys."

Perhaps then, he said, the death of Martin and the others in this "unfortunate fraternity" can mean something new.