For the past couple months, my Instagram feed has been filled with benign photographs of homemade food, flowering plants, and the creative projects people had undertaken while in coronavirus-mandated lockdown. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking protests around the country. Instagram had already been a space for organizing and activism, but overnight that seemed to become its primary purpose. Calls to action, pictures and videos from demonstrations, and educational posts about defunding the police flooded into view.
Social media, as flawed as it is, can be a valuable tool. But I wanted to return to aesthetics and consider the many visual manifestations of “Black Lives Matter”: pictures of the protests, yes, but also photographs of black life unrelated to police (or other) brutality, and, just as important, the visionary creations of black artists. Images alone can’t bring about change, but they can jump-start our imaginations and help us see more clearly. Here are a few accounts doing that.
If I had to pick an Instagram favorite these days, it would be Cauleen Smith’s account. Since the pandemic began, the artist has been sharing some of her remarkable, experimental short films under the hashtag #shutinfilmfestival. Each one is distinct, yet they share an aesthetic — often retro looking and purposefully choppy or collagelike, with the strong presence of music — and a common concern: Ms. Smith draws on images and material from the past to conjure possibilities for black futures. In “The Changing Same” (2001), two aliens on missions to Earth fall in love; in “Black and Blue Over You (after Bas Jan Ader),” from 2010, a woman assembles and reassembles flower arrangements in a never-ending mourning ritual. Interspersed among these are photographs of Ms. Smith’s handwritten “covid manifestoes,” terse meditations on current political and social circumstances. The first one reads, “The internet is not the answer.”
Damon Davis is probably best known for his activism. He was a co-director of the documentary “Whose Streets?,” about the uprising that took place in Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. But he’s also a musician and visual artist whose work takes many forms. (He calls himself “post-disciplinary.”) For the yearslong project “Darker Gods,” for instance, he imagined a pantheon of black deities through prints, installation, a film, and an album. On Instagram he’s been showing newer pieces: sculpted heads that look like precious ruins, collages combining family photos with archival images of scientific specimens, and garish digital paintings of clownish characters. They take the surrealism underscoring much of his work and manifest it as a quieter reflection on the multilayered and fractured nature of African-American identity.
Kyle Marshall Choreography
On May 28, the choreographer Kyle Marshall posted a dance improvisation dedicated to recent victims of police brutality. In the piece, which unfolds on an empty basketball court, Mr. Marshall uses his body, breath and voice to create alternating passages of strength and weakness, shifting between struggle and freedom. It’s viscerally impactful and elegiac — a seemingly more personal extension of his work exploring political and social subjects, like surveillance. Over the past few months, Mr. Marshall has been digging through his archive, spotlighting one piece at a time and sharing clips of performances as well as rehearsals. There’s something wonderfully intimate and eye-opening about a behind-the-scenes look at the process of making contemporary dance.
Intimacy is one of the qualities I love most about Blvck Vrchives, an online archive begun by the artist Renata Cherlise in 2015. The collection focuses on representations of everyday black life — weddings, parties, meals, kids playing — with the occasional celebrity portrait. Ms. Cherlise posts a wide range of material, including pictures by well-known photographers like Gordon Parks and Aaron Siskind, but my favorites are the home videos and snapshots — what Ms. Cherlise sometimes identifies as “found memories.” Whether it’s a clip of friends breaking it down in someone’s living room or a picture of three women posing during an afternoon outing in the park, these posts capture a feeling of precious, unscripted joy.
It’s fitting that I found out about RVA Magazine’s Instagram account because of a photograph. The picture, taken by a man who goes by Jiggy the Creative, shows protesters in front of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Va. A large sign in the crowd proclaims “Black Lives Matter” in handwriting that mirrors graffiti on the base of the memorial, while a light projection casts George Floyd’s face onto the Confederate landmark. The image encapsulates the historical shift we’re living through: The day it was posted, the governor of Virginia announced plans to remove the statue (although a judge has temporarily halted the process). As protests against police brutality have swept the country, RVA Magazine has done a terrific job of showing what’s happening on the ground in a city that’s out of the national media spotlight by steadily sharing powerful work by professional and local amateur photographers.