THE COLOR BLUE ordinarily symbolizes spirituality in the work of Delita Martin. She creates figurative mixed-media works combining relief printing, painting, drawing, hand-stitching, and collage. Inspired by oral traditions and old family photographs, her representations of Black women seek to correct problematic narratives and instead emphasize their individuality and vital family and community roles.

Huffman, Texas-based Martin veils her subjects in patterns, shaped fields of color, and objects, speaking to a liminal space between reality and otherworldly experiences. Her works tell stories.

 


DELITA MARTIN, “Blue Is the Color We See Before We Die,” 2021 (relief printing, collage, charcoal, hand-stitching, and acrylic, 8 x 6 feet). | © Delita Martin, Courtesy the artist and LEAP

 

A new large-scale painting, “Blue Is the Color We See Before We Die” (2021), features four figures—three men and one woman. It’s a transfixing image that turns out to be tragic. The hard-to-decipher scene is Martin’s interpretation of the police murder of a 47-year-old Black woman in Texas in 2014. Here, blue symbolizes police, blue indicates a transition from life to death. The mural was commissioned by Ava DuVernay and ARRAY, her narrative change collective.

George Floyd’s murder was a turning point for many. For DuVernay, the filmmaker, activist, and art collector, it moved her to take action. The popular mantra of saying the names of the victims of police murder wasn’t enough. She wanted to hold police accountable, to police the police.

One year ago, DuVernay established the Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP). Martin is the fifth artist to participate. The idea is to harness the creativity of artists to shed light on the growing and numerous array of offending officers.

“I felt that after the murder of George Floyd we had to do something. We needed to assert our voices and really speak to the things that were challenging us and for me that came down to the idea that we don’t have enough conversations about law enforcement. About police. About what happens to officers who use excessive force, who murder while doing their jobs and that discourse needed to happen,” DuVernay said on Good Morning America.

“Citizens need to feel like they can ask questions, that they can have information about those officers, and what happens next. We’ve seen that there are cases of officers who then rejoin the force, or move to other forces in other communities, without the community knowing.”

DuVernay continued: “The idea for this was to use artists to amplify the idea of asking questions about your local police. Who are they? What are they doing? With the Law Enforcement Accountability Project we invite artists from all kinds of disciplines to think about that idea and push that awareness forward.”

“We needed to assert our voices and really speak to the things that were challenging us and for me that came down to the idea that we don’t have enough conversations about law enforcement. About police. About what happens to officers who use excessive force, who murder while doing their jobs and that discourse needed to happen.” — Ava DuVernay


On Good Morning America, Ava DuVernay explains the concept for the Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP) and introduces Delita Martin’s painting. She is the fifth artist to participate. DuVernay said, “The idea for this was to use artists to amplify the idea of asking questions about your local police. Who are they? What are they doing? | Video by ABC’s Good Morning America

 

LEAP launched with New York photographer Steven John Irby. Three additional artists have also contributed to the project: Atlanta poet W.J. Lofton; Jocelyn Jackson, a culinary artist, food activist, founder of JUSTUS Kitchen, and co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, Calif.; and Ra-Re Valverde, a singer, songwriter, producer and visual artist,

In Martin’s mural, a woman is losing her footing and falling backward, her face transformed into an African mask. She already exists in another realm. Two shadowy silhouettes loom at the center of the scene. The most prominent figure is wearing what looks like a knit cap with stars and the blue stripe of the Blue Lives Matter flag. He pulls it back over his head to reveal his face. His chest is decorated with a star-shaped badge and a name tag that reads “Deputy Daniel J. Willis.”

The woman in the picture is Yvette Smith. She was killed by Willis, after quelling a dispute between her friend Willie Thomas and his son at the Thomas home. A woman called 911 on Feb. 16, 2014, at about 12:30 a.m., according to news reports. The dispatcher indicated there was a fight at the address that involved a gun. Bastrop County Sheriff’s officers responded, arriving at the Texas residence after the domestic disturbance had already been de-escalated.

The elder Thomas was standing outside the house by himself. Willis, a white sheriff’s deputy, ordered everyone inside the house to come out. When Smith emerged, Willis who had taken cover behind a car, shouted “Police!” and almost immediately fired two shots from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing Smith. Willis was fired from the sheriff’s department. Two years later, in 2016, he was found “not guilty” in Smith’s murder.

 


Yvette Smith was shot and killed in 2014 by Bastrop County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Willis less than three hours from the home of Texas artist DELITA MARTIN. She said she wanted her artwork to take viewers back to the scene and, most importantly, show Willis’s face, “not allowing him to hide behind the mask of law enforcement.” | Video by LEAP

 

In a video for LEAP, Martin said she wanted her artwork to take viewers back to the scene and, most importantly, show Willis’s face, “not allowing him to hide behind the mask of law enforcement.”

The artist shared further details on Instagram about the references and symbolism she introduced in the mural:

  • A series of assault rifles line the left side of Willis’s police uniform. As he uses one hand to uncover his face, the other is pointing at Smith.
  • The two figures at the center of the work represent Thomas and his son. The men serve as the physical links that, through their actions, brought Willis and Smith together in the final moments of her life.
  • Red poppies are associated with remembrance. The flowers form the pattern printed on Smith’s dress, near her abdomen where she was shot.
  • Multiple meaning can be drawn from the portrayal of Smith’s face as an African mask. Martin indicates the concept is about the invisibility of Black people in the eyes of many who don police shields and swear to protect and serve their communities.

Later in the video, Martin added: “I was especially touched by this case not just because it took place less than three hours from my home, but Yvette Smith did what myself and so many Black people around this country have been taught and that is to trust police. But trust is a difficult request when police administrations around the country are taking calculated risks with Black lives.”

In July, Martin’s painting, “Blue Is the Color We See Before We Die,” will embark on a multi-city tour. The first stop is the Houston Museum of African American Culture. CT

 

FIND MORE about Delita Martin on her website, Black Box Press Studio

 

READ MORE about the Daniel Willis verdict in The Guardian

 


LEAP launched with the work of New York photographer STEVEN JOHN IRBY, who focused on the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo and the four NYPD officers involved: Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss. Irby’s photo essay is titled “41 to ’99.” | Video by LEAP

 


Atlanta poet W.J. LOFTON made a visual poem about the March 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., after LMPD officers Myles Cosgrove, Brett Hankison and Jonathan Mattingly executed a “no-knock” warrant on her home, shortly after midnight. | Video by LEAP

 


Culinary artist and food activist JOCELYN JACKSON created Fixed Price Menu to explore the police murder of Philando Castile, who worked in the cafeterias of Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, for 14 years, beginning at age 19. In 2016, Castile was pulled over by St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez for a broken tail light and was shot seven times at close range. Jackson’s project included a conceptual menu, tablescape installation, and a virtual community cooking session, shown in the video above. | Video by LEAP

 


For her project, singer-songwriter RA-RE VALVERDE made a song about the 2011 police killing of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., 68. A Marine Corps veteran with a heart condition and history of mental health challenges, he accidentally pressed the button on his medical alert system while sleeping, summoning White Plains Police Officers to the door of his home in Westchester County, New York. Chamberlain refused their assistance and the police entered by force. He was dead before 7 a.m. After being shot by taser, police shot him twice from a beanbag shotgun, then Officer Anthony Carelli shot Chamberlain twice in his chest with live ammunition. Valverde titled her song “Safe Where?” | Video by LEAP

 

BOOKSHELF
From artist Delita Martin “Conjure” documents her 2021 exhibition at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont. “Shadows in the Garden” explores a range of works by the artist from several exhibitions and represented in a number of collections. Or consider both books on Martin’s work. Ava DuVernay is featured in “Renegade Women in Film and TV.” Her critically acclaimed series on the OWN network was inspired by the novel “Queen Sugar.” DuVernay also adapted “A Wrinkle in Time” into a major motion picture.

 

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