Last year, Baltimore artist Amy Sherald painted Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old medical worker who was killed by police, as a commission for the cover of Vanity Fair, depicting Taylor in hues of turquoise and blues, standing elegantly, like a goddess, in a long, flowy dress. “Producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever,” said Sherald.
Now, the portrait – which will be jointly owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville – is going on view in a new exhibition honoring Taylor, a year after her death.
Promise, Witness, Remembrance, a group exhibition opening at the Speed Art Museum on 7 April, reflects on Taylor’s life, her killing and the protests that followed in 2020, both in Louisville and around the world.
Featuring over 30 artworks, it includes pieces by Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall, Hank Willis Thomas and others.
“There’s a lot that this exhibition can’t do,” said the curator, Allison Glenn. “It can’t change what happened, it can’t change the grand jury’s decision. The issue of police brutality and gun violence is not a local issue limited to just Breonna Taylor, it’s a national issue.”
The exhibition is divided into three sections: Promise, Witness and Remembrance (the last section in the museum includes Sherald’s portrait of Taylor). The title of the exhibition came out of a conversation between Glenn and Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, during the planning of the exhibition.
“Tamika Palmer’s voice was an important voice as part of this exhibition,” said Glenn. “I wanted to understand what Mrs Palmer wanted it to do, to honor her daughter’s legacy.”
Sherald’s portrait started the conversation of the exhibition, says Glenn. “I wanted to be really respectful of the local community.”
It also includes a piece by Nick Cave called Unarmed from 2018. “He made this artwork after hearing about the shooting of Michael Brown,” said Glenn. “A cast of his hand forms to a point with his fingers, forming a gun. For me, it’s about the perception of ‘armed and dangerous’. It could have been anyone. How perception can inform reaction.”
Rashid Johnson has an oil painting created in hues of red called November 3, 2020, named after the day of the US presidential election, while Glenn Ligon is showing an artwork called Aftermath, neon-lit signage that reads “Nov. 4, 2020,” citing the day after.
As Ligon says about this piece: “The emergency started generations ago for Indigenous people who resided here before the colonizers arrived and for the enslaved Africans brought to these shores over four hundred years ago.”
Some artworks respond directly to Taylor, like a selection of photos taken by Xavier Burrell at a protest in Louisville after Taylor was killed, where protesters chanted “Say Her Name!” There are also photos taken by Louisville photojournalist, Jon P Cherry. “I wanted to create a connection between protest, gun violence and people,” said Glenn.
“What has happened in Louisville is not an isolated occurrence, but rather an echo of the paradox of the time and place we are living in. We live in a country where a woman of color is vice-president, but the family of Breonna Taylor has not gotten the justice they’ve sought.”
The exhibition also includes a piece by Bethany Collins, whose piece The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal, which is made of a book with 100 laser-cut leaves, is part of an artist book with 100 versions of The Star Spangled Banner, from the 18th century to the present. The multiple reinterpretations of this song (composed by Francis Scott Key in 1814, which became America’s national anthem in 1931), act as a reflection on national identity after a tumultuous election year.
There is a color field painting in the Witness section by Sam Gilliam. “I wanted to highlight how artists help us understand the contemporary moment,” said Glenn. “He works with abstraction and the freedom that abstraction provides. It offers an expanded protest of what a painting can be.”
“The local community is still grieving,” said Glenn. “People feel without the justice, there’s a sense of loss and not being recognized, witnessed, acknowledged. That’s the sense I have.”
One year after Taylor’s death, there still has been no accountability. Though this exhibition can’t directly fix that, art has the potential to help heal.
“Art has the opportunity for people to process,” said Glenn. “There’s a quote as I was developing the exhibition, which read: ‘In order for hurt to heal, hurt has to be heard.’”
“I’m not assuming that this exhibition can heal the community, but creating space for people within a museum, for those who historically have not felt included, this space is for them,” she said.
“Inroads to this conversation can build more trust. I’m not a legislator or politician but I can do these things with the exhibition, I hope that’s what this does.”