Black artists at forefront of Atlanta’s public art movement

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

Throughout her career, muralist Charmaine Minniefield’s public art has preserved and uplifted the stories of Black people and communities. So she was not surprised when the summer of 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis set off an international focus on social justice, that Black artists in metro Atlanta found themselves on the front lines.

“The arts have always been at the front of all social justice movements,” Minniefield said. “This surge of interest in Black art in particular is just in keeping with the surge of interest in Black life, the need to reaffirm Black life.”

Over the past year, Black mural artists, and particularly Black women artists, have been recognized as never before, with their work on display in some of the most visible and vibrant areas of metro Atlanta. The turning point was the summer of protests and the subsequent commitments to diversity and inclusivity from corporations and communities, which led to more recognition.

Credit:, courtesy of ArtsATL

Credit:, courtesy of ArtsATL

Public art has offered many of them a platform in an industry that remains largely dominated by white men, and Minniefield said, it is more than a moment in time. “I am seeing artists taking the mantle and being innovative and global in their messaging,” she said. “Communities are understanding the value of having public art that speaks to that vision in their spaces.”

George F. Baker III has been a practicing muralist for three years, and he watched his career take off in the summer of 2020. The past year, he said, has been crazy — in a good way. ”The last time I counted, I have done about 15 to 18 murals all over the country,” he said. “Muralism as an art form has been happening for eons now, but specifically in Atlanta, there has been a lot more shine on a lot more Black artists that have been doing this.”

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In the past year, many Black artists realized there was nothing stopping them from putting their work up on a wall, except getting the wall, Baker said.

“We live in a city that is powered by Black culture. People were looking for Black artists to put work up on their walls and looking for the Black perspective,” he said. “I am hoping this isn’t just seen as a moment in time. I don’t think it will be because now we have shown we have the capability.”

Baker said he was also pleased to see a growing number of Black women muralists pushed to the forefront.

Artists such as Zipporah Joe’l, Charity Hamidullah, Sachi Rome and SOFAHOOD have participated in the Stacks Squares Mural Project in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown, a rotating mural arts project curated by Austin “Blue“ Richardson in which each round of murals consists of 10 artists of all career stages painting in a 7-foot framed square. One round included the themed exhibit “Say Their Names,” with portraits of 10 Black people whose lives were lost to police.

Erica L. Chisolm was enlisted by a corporation to create the #ShineDifferent mural located in Cabbagetown, 87 Estoria St. SE, as a tribute to women featured in a campaign for the Black hair care brand Creme of Nature.

Chloe Alexander doesn’t consider herself a muralist, but the printmaker took on a mural project in collaboration with Living Walls, the Upper Westside CID, and MARTA’s Artbound initiative at MARTA’s Mobility Facility on Brady Avenue.

“I don’t respond to just any calls for the sake of doing murals, but that spoke to me because I am from Atlanta and it is an area that is under a lot of transition and my memories of that place are very different than what you would see now,” said Alexander.

Yuzly Mathurin described her efforts to capture the beauty of Asian and African American culture. The work was influenced by the hate crimes against Asian people happening across the country, said Mathurin in a recent phone interview. As she was creating plans for the mural, she was also watching the George Floyd trial and wanted to depict the strength of Black people.

The mural, located behind Plaza Theatre in Poncey-Highland, was part of the Adult Swim Atlanta Mural Project, which in conjunction with Living Walls, provided public spaces for Black muralists to display their work.

Credit: Brock Scott

Credit: Brock Scott

“When it comes to public art, it’s important to convey what’s happening around you,” Mathurin told the AJC in July. “I thought it was appropriate to do something that was uplifting. I wanted to do something that would make people smile when they looked at the wall.”

Her mural of a Black woman in a flowered kimono wearing red-, black- and green-striped tube socks and a resplendent Afro with a pick in hand suggests we all find time to “Spread Love Not Hate.”

The surge in high-profile murals going to Black artists was primarily led by Black women, said Art Rudick, founder of the Atlanta Street Art Map who has been documenting the Atlanta street art scene since 2017.

In the summer of 2020, Rudick was tracking all the murals and plotting a celebration for when the city reached 1,000 installations. At the end of 2019, the count was in the 800s, he said.

Then came the pandemic and mural installations slowed to almost zero. Then came the murder of George Floyd. “All of a sudden, there was a huge creative outpouring of protest murals from the Black Lives Matter supporters,” he said. “That is what pushed Atlanta over the 1,000 mural mark.”

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

The city hit the mark in July 2020 when Ashley Dopson completed a mural at Kipp Strive Academy in the Westview neighborhood. Dopson is currently working with ATL1000, an initiative launched by Rudick as a celebration of Atlanta’s landmark mural status. The effort features a who’s who of local Black women artists.

But many of the projects that have engaged Black mural artists are public commissions, and artists know the real money, the kind that can allow you to focus on your art and quit your day job, is not always flowing in their direction.

“I think I am standing in the middle of something, but I also don’t necessarily see as much Black mural artwork that I would like to see,” said artist Sachi Rome. “There is a lot more room to grow and show especially when we consider how much money goes in and out of this city. I would like to see a wider net be cast for the corporate dollars ... not just the street work but the corporate interior beautification of spaces that leads not just to more money but better money.”

Rome remembers growing up in Atlanta, looking at the art on walls around town and thinking that she wanted to do that when she grew up. She has fulfilled that dream with enough murals around the city that people recognize her work. “I like putting out work that people can just pull up and enjoy, and I enjoy the community having access to artwork in the community,” she said.

But art is low-hanging fruit to planners looking for quick beautification projects that will energize an area. “Most of the artists that do public art are aware of this,” Rome said. “We provide an entry point to gentrification and pricing up your standard of living.”

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

This is why it is so important for Black mural artists to remain intentional about preserving and creating community and recognizing their sphere of influence is within their own hands, Minniefield said.

“My work is a pushback against erasure because I lift up Black narratives,” said Minniefield, who recently received grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts via Emory Arts for her Praise House Project.

The art installations at Emory, the Decatur Square and the historic South View Cemetery are a tribute to the small, wooden structures where enslaved people gathered throughout the Southeast to worship and move in rhythmic prayer that helped preserve their cultural identity and traditions. “Erasure comes in many forms — gentrification, forgetting, appropriation,” Minniefield said. “Our public monuments are ways to preserve our story and our history and a way to propel our ideals forward.”