When Jasmine Brown was a kid living in the Midwest, she often jumped rope in front of her home. It was a time to be in the neighborhood and engage with friends. Brown looks back on those memories with fondness.
But for eight-year-old Tanaja Stokes, jumping rope with a cousin in Chicago in 2010 proved to be a deadly summertime activity after stray bullets from two armed gunmen killed her and injured her cousin.
That particular shooting tugged on Brown’s heart strings. She memorializes Stokes and other people of color killed by unnecessary violence as icons in her latest exhibit, “Remembrance.”
In this series of images, Brown celebrates the lives of these people through a traditional style of iconography usually reserved for Orthodox religious figures.
“These weren’t necessarily grand people when they were alive,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot to be said for who is important and who is valued — and who is not.”
All her subjects, from Emmett Till to John T. Williams, are painted on icon boards and will be displayed until May 13 in “Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Racial Injustice” at the Seattle Municipal Tower.
The year-long rotating exhibit was sparked by national grieving over events similar to Stokes’ death. Conversations around the Charleston 9 tragedy and Black Lives Matter movement caused public art project manager Liz Johnson and her colleagues to ask what they could do with the space they controlled.
“We wanted to have an open dialogue from many different voices. We have curators, artists, artists-in-residence, Black people, White people, young people,” said Johnson. “It’s a range of diversities thinking about the topic.”
They invited people to apply who they thought might have an interesting perspective and partnered with social justice activists in the city to finalize the artists.
Brown is one of the two artists-in-residence who will inhabit the gallery in 2016. During her two-month residency, Brown will be working on a piece honoring the late Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. His death sparked protests and calls for police reform in the city and nationwide.
By mixing powdered pigments with wine and egg yolk, Brown continues the practice of egg tempera painting that has existed for centuries. She also uses gold leaf to add sheen to the icons.
“I traveled to Egypt and saw some mummies from Alexandria with faces painted on the mummy case with tempera and wax coating over it, and it had survived,” Brown said. “I wanted to pick a medium that I thought would contrast with the young lives lost — the people who maybe didn’t see their 18th birthday ... these pieces, barring fire or flood, could potentially survive for a few hundred years.”
Each piece of work takes about 40 hours to complete. Brown starts by researching subjects online and creating sketches based on their likeness. For some pieces, such as the one depicting Till, it’s a conscious decision not to use images the public is most familiar with. “Images online [of Emmett Till] are gruesome pictures of him in a casket right before the burial. I wanted to highlight when he was handsome and healthy, but also have the Tallahatchie River in the background, where his body was found.”
Only one of Brown’s models is living. She chose to paint a South African boy to stand in for the Rwandan genocide.
It’s important to Brown to capture a likeness while also making sure they are accessible and able to tell a story for all audiences. This means Brown tends to use bright colors and highlight innocence by enlarging the eyes, she said.
“So much of what we see in the larger world and in the media, [people of color are] the sidekicks, the footnote, the victim or the perpetrator instead of the hero or real tragedy that everyone should be concerned about,” said Brown. “I think picking a very traditional medium where historically, people of color wouldn’t be portrayed is my way of calling attention to that ... I wanted to pick a medium that honored the lives lost in a way that draws on religious symbols and invites visitors to consider the lives lost with more than a voyeuristic fascination, and more reverence and respect that invites contemplation.”
Brown knows too well the pain that comes from the voyeuristic parts of American culture that have developed over the years.
In October 2008, Jasmine Brown had earth-shattering experience that no parent wants to go through. Her two foster sons, 18- and 19- years-young, went to a Halloween party and did not return home. They would not be able to go to college, or see the first Black president enter the White House.
Later she would find that video footage of her sons were central to an episode of Crime 360, a reality show that aired the bodies of her sons on the sidewalk.
“We don’t see images like that of Sandy Hook. I’m sure there’s a police video of when they went into that school, but they don’t put that on television for somebody to buy in a box set or download on iTunes for 99 cents. So I want to counter that narrative that said these lives are so unimportant,” Brown said. “What is it about our society that allows us to separate the two? I don’t see any difference between my foster sons and the kids that were killed in Sandy Hook. But obviously, the media does.”
WHAT: “Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Racial Injustice”
WHERE: Seattle Presents Gallery @ Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 Fifth Ave. (Corner of Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street)
WHEN: Jasmine Brown’s “Remembrance” through May 13, other showings throughout 2016, open to public on Tuesdays from noon to 2 p.m.