On a drive from Chicago to Prairie View, TX to start a new job, the 28-year-old African-American woman Sandra Bland was pulled over by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. The dashcam video of that traffic stop shows Encinia asking Bland to put out the cigarette she was smoking in her car. She refuses. He aggressively pulls Bland from her vehicle, drags her to the side of the road out of the view of the dashcam and arrests her. Three days later, Bland was found dead, hanging in her jail cell. Bland's death, which was ruled a suicide, inspired a Black Lives Matter-led Twitter campaign #SayHerName, which expanded into streets around the country.
Nearly two years later, the artist Azikiwe Mohammed airbrushed Bland's face onto a black t-shirt and forged a gold ring reading "Sandra" in cursive. "What inspired the memorial items was me being tired of not remembering these people's names and their stories," Mohammed tells Creators. The artist exhibited the body of work at this year's Spring/Break Art Show in New York City. "It [represents] a pledge to try and do better, an offering of respect to those no longer here, and an opportunity for other people to do the same."
Mohammed's portrait starkly contrasts the dashcam video released after Bland's death. She depicts Bland smiling, imagining her life as something larger than a hashtag in the fight against police brutality. The representation encourages a view of Bland as a woman who had dreams, desires, and rights as a citizen. It inspires questions like, "Who was she?" and "What did the world lose in the chain of events which ended her life?"
Sandra Bland, 2017 is a part of a larger series titled Remember Us, in which the artist created 13 t-shirts and gold rings with the names of unarmed black women killed by police officers in the last few years: Meagan Hockaday, Gabriella Nevarez, Rekia Boyd, Alexia Christian, Michelle Cusseaux, Mya Hall, Janisha Fonville, Natasha McKenna, Tyisha Miller, Aiyana Jones, Tanisha Anderson, and Aura Rosser.
"The airbrushed t-shirt has long been a staple of remembrance, and when seen en masse like this they act as so much more than when alone," Mohammed explains. The medium is a common gesture the black community uses to remember those killed under tragic circumstances. "I added the name rings on the neckline of the hangers, so you could know the ladies' names and their faces, but also when rings are worn as necklaces, they speak to someone remembered but no longer with us."
Another piece Unarmed, 2016, uses gold and silver nameplates mounted on a red jewelry board to commemorate black men, women, and children killed by police. According to the artist, a nameplate is generally gifted to black children to celebrate their birth or achievements that mark "a permanent statement of residence." Mohammed says that employing the nameplate as a marker of remembrance symbolizes a promise broken by a third party, in this case by a police officer. He used nameplates and name rings as an "organizational structure to speak to the lives lost in a physically precious—gold and silver—but categorically chopped-out manner."
The styles and material of the nameplates indicate age and whether victims were killed in police custody or in public. A gold nameplate indicates the person died in custody. For the artist, the research process leading to the creation of the work presented a clear and disturbing pattern: victims of police brutality who are 20 or younger seem to die in jail and prison, while older victims seem to be killed on the street.
"Often, when we are killed by police, the names of the males are remembered while the women go unnoticed," Mohammed explains. He continues, "With Remember Us and Unarmed, 2016, I am hoping to highlight—definitely not all, but a few of—the names and faces that I have come across over the past few years, as this is unfortunately a piece with no end in sight. In the meantime, we can at least mourn individuals and not statistics."
For more information on Azikiwe Mohammed, click here.