In the space of ten minutes, three passersbys on the 200 block of West 9th Street stop to praise the mural that artist Erica Jones is in the process of painting. On a step ladder, jars of milky paint, all manner of magenta, lie in wait, as Jones considers her progress on her work, a larger-than-life portrait of slain Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau. The nineteen-year old’s body was found in Tallahassee, Florida after she posted a series of disturbing tweets detailing a sexual assault she had experienced as a result of her homelessness. But here IN Wilmington, Jones is painting Toyin less as a victim and more of a bold and luminous woman. One imagines a spotlit jazz singer—her gold earring spelling out GOD—singing, closed-eyed, against a dark curtain. If you Google a photo of Salau, you find that she did indeed have that kind of radiant presence in life. Jones is using Salau’s likeness to shed light on the violence perpetrated against black women and girls. On the adjacent wall, Jones plans to paint the names of 200 black women and girls who have been victims of violence (police brutality, domestic violence, etc) and mostly forgotten. “I want to bring it to the forefront for a bit,” she says quietly with the understanding that she doesn’t want to draw attention away from the larger scope of the Black Lives Matter movement. But if this isn’t the moment to discuss the fact that people are killing black women and girls without facing investigation, let alone prosecution, when is a good time to talk?
“[Women and girls] are the easiest targets because if we are not going to care…if we are going to let people get away with [murdering them], then why stop the violence?” Jones asks. We have only to look at the fact that, in response to protests across the world, the officers responsible for the death of George Floyd have been indicted while no arrests have been made in the death of Breonna Taylor. Kamala Harris, the first black and simultaneously the first Asian-American female Vice-president candidate, has said, “The litmus test of America is how we treat black women.” It is a test that America is failing.
Erica Jones is the third of at least four artists of color (and the only woman…so far) selected to paint murals over the boards that volunteers and business owners secured over storefront windows after rioters smashed them on May 30th, during the (mostly peaceful) protests held in Wilmington in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Local photographer, Joe del Tufo, of Moonloop Photography, was on hand the morning following the riot to document the damage and the community clean-up efforts. He had the idea to use the boards as a means to create beauty out of dark circumstances. Originally, he wanted to cover them in visuals from New Market Wilmington campaign, since they had such a diverse and positive collection of images, but he had heard that some of the business owners weren’t as keen to use the boarded-up windows as yet another avenue to market the city.
“Jason Aviles (as a black owner of Green Box Grocer) felt differently about the idea at the last minute, and I thought his point about not making it look like a campaign was a valid one,” del Tufo said.
Already in conversation with Delaware Art Museum’s Jonathan Whitney (Manager of Performance Programs & Community Engagement) and Eliza Jarvis (Manager of Youth Learning & Creative Partnerships), del Tufo pivoted to their idea of using the spaces as a kind of outdoor art gallery.
“We saw the panels as canvas to continue the push for systematic change,” Whitney said. According to Whitney, the panel project is being funded (materials and compensation for artists’ time) by community members who wanted to amplify the voices of black artists. The first two artists called to the project were local talents James Wyatt and JaQuanne Leroy. Wyatt, known for his colorful portraits and 3D manipulations, painted his mural at Spaceboy Clothing on Market Street. Meanwhile, Leroy, a multi-media artist with a background in advertising, created his piece next to Jones’s mural where the pop-up holiday bar Blitzen had previously been located on W. 9th Street. Del Tufo was on hand to document the artists at work.
“I can tell you that being with the artist, when car after car pull off the street and come out… to sometimes just watch…sometimes ask questions, and always to lift the artist up in their work has been surprising and wonderful. And I’ve learned so much not only from listening, but also getting some of the backstory on the work. It’s been an unexpected and unforgettable education for me,” del Tufo said.
As for Erica Jones’s backstory? She is a native of Aberdeen, MD, where she supplements her creative endeavors with work as a machine operator. Jones graduated with an art degree (Drawing, Painting, Graphic Design) from Cecil College, where del Tufo met her while doing a marketing photoshoot for the college. While art is Jones’s first love, she is also a talented RAP/Hip Hop musician, writing and recording under the name E. Lizé. A video of her single The Arrival, featuring Chris Rivers, dropped in January, and, in a satisfyingly circular premonition, features her rapping in front of mural portraits of hip-hop artists/rappers who paved the way for her. Wu-Tang Clan, Big Pun, Nas, and Big L…to name a few. While acknowledging all the history that has come before, The Arrival’s hook offers up a prayerful refrain for current artists, “May there be a time for you,” This fresh invocation calls us back to Oluwatoyin Salau and the issue at hand—a young life, whose time has not only been cut short but also tragically ignored. Other lives…Black lives…specifically the lives of women and girls of color, have been robbed of their time and our notice. Collectively, these Wilmington murals, though large in scale, are but a brief snapshot of our city in 2020. Someday soon, the art on these boards will be replaced with windows and, fingers crossed, some robust commerce. When that time comes, we will celebrate. In the meantime, we can use this strange year of passively hunkering down waiting for a cure for COVID-19 as an opportunity to find an antidote to that other great scourge—violence against people of color. And we can start with something that is within our power to change—specifically our attention.
IN that spirit, Wilmington businesses invite you to don your masks and take a stroll through downtown Wilmington to view the murals in the 200 block of West 9th Street and the 700 block of N. Market Street. More art will follow. In the coming weeks, check back to IN Wilmington for information on future mural(s) in this series.
Jones ended up including nearly 400 names of women and girls who were victims of violence in her finished mural.